Perhaps the most rewarding moment I witnessed at Sundance last week, after watching several post-screening Q&A’s with Everything’s Cool directors and stars, came on my last night in Utah.
They’d just finished the film’s only screening in Salt Lake City, and the packed house had nearly all stayed for the rap session, armed with questions about the future and what they can do. The theater managers had to ask them to wrap up the Q&A more than once, and even when they finished, the audience poured out into the lobby, where they swarmed the directors and stars for advice and clamored for the free CFLs and handouts on what they can do to stop global warming. Theater managers didn’t know what to do — they kept pushing the swarm back into the lobby, and there was another film screening right behind it.
A mother and daughter skipped gleefully toward the exit, the mother waving her ticket stub, signed by government whistleblower Rick Piltz, featured in the film. She called out to a friend that he should get his signed by another of the film’s stars — Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ross Gelbspan. These guys were rock stars here.
I got a chance to sit down with Gelbspan, author of Boiling Point and The Heat Is On, and his wife Anne between the numerous Everything’s Cool screenings. Gelbspan talked a bit about getting the message out through film, public opinion, American journalism — and about what really needs to be done.
What do you think about the ability of film, specifically Everything’s Cool, to make a difference in societal opinion on climate change?
I think it’s a great compliment to An Inconvenient Truth because An Inconvenient Truth doesn’t have any sympathetic characters you get involved with, and even Al isn’t that much of a character in the film. It’s Professor Gore telling you about how the climate systems work. It’s a very good film, but there’s nobody to relate to.
And here you have four or five really engaging people to relate to, and I think that gives it a kind of personalness that An Inconvenient Truth doesn’t have. So for that reason I think it’s very good. If it gets picked up commercially, here’s the question for me: They have one scene in there of me doing a phone radio show, and it’s after Katrina, and the interviewer is asking me on this radio show if I think Katrina is a triggering event. In other words, is this going to create a big upsurge on climate change? I said in the interview, “Gee, I have no idea, I thought the 35,000 heat deaths in Europe the summer before was the trigger, and that didn’t do anything.”
Maybe a film like this could be a triggering event. Part of the reason I think that is that having been working on this stuff for 10 years, global warming is really a moving target, and notions that were outrageous or just off the radar screen six, seven years ago are now conventional wisdom. And it’s changing so fast that you just don’t know what’s going to work. I really do believe that rapid social change can happen as unexpectedly as rapid climate change. I think of the wall in Berlin coming down in two years, I think of apartheid being overthrown in South Africa very quickly. You know, as the film made clear, you’ve got thousands of groups all over the country working like earthworms on this issue, what is it going to take to catalyze a real movement that comes up out of that? If the film could end up playing that kind of role, that would be wonderful. But I don’t know. I just don’t know.
One of the things that I enjoyed about the film is that it chronicles some of this public opinion shift. How have you seen public opinion shift in the years that you’ve been covering climate change?
I think that there’s a huge shift that hasn’t caught up with Nordhaus and Shellenberger yet, and that shift is media coverage. And media coverage is much stronger now than it was when they were doing their surveys and polls. Climate change is really in the news much more frequently now than it has been for the last seven or eight years. I still think the media really is not at all up to speed in terms of the imminence, and the magnitude, and the gravity of this stuff, but at least it’s in the vocabulary. I think the combination of Katrina and An Inconvenient Truth and that all began a wave of media coverage. You really see climate change in the papers every few days now.
Overall, how would you rate the quality of news coverage of climate change?
It’s underestimating. The reality is that the climate is changing so much more quickly than the scientists thought even five years ago. One scientist told me we’re seeing impacts now that we didn’t expect to see until 2085, and the pace of this stuff is just blindsiding everybody in the scientific community. The newspapers are reporting it as yet another issue, like health care and budget deficits. So I don’t think the press is giving it its due, but it is more frequently acknowledged and mentioned in the press. And so that’s a hopeful sign.
One of the things I enjoyed most in the film is when you say that it’s not worth going on TV to debate it — you quote James Hansen in saying that he’s not going to debate it. But then it shows you going on TV to debate people. Do you still see a reason to debate? Where are you on that these days?
I don’t debate skeptics anymore, no.
At what point did you decide you were done with that?
In that same segment, even then I was on my way to Fox TV to debate a guy from ExxonMobil, or from one of the fronts for ExxonMobil. And what really struck me was this whole notion of keeping it cast as a debate is their central strategy. They don’t care if they win or lose the debate, because as long as it’s presented as a debate, the public can shrug its shoulders and say, come back and tell us what you know when you really know what you’re talking about. For that reason, I just won’t skeptics anymore, the same way Hansen won’t. I will really debate people on what we should be doing about it. And that’s really important.
Are you hopeful that there will be any changes as far as that in mainstream media?
I hope so. I don’t know. I’ll tell you an interesting story. [In the film] they spent some time on this op-ed I did after Katrina, “Katrina’s Real Name Was Global Warming.” About two months later there came to town a group of German news editors from very high-profile publications — Der Spiegel, German Public Radio. They asked if they could meet with me to discuss journalistic issues on this stuff. The woman who was organizing their tour gave them copies of this op-ed. So we’re in the middle a great discussion, talking about journalism issues and climate, and two editors held up this op-ed, and one of them said to me, “No disrespect intended, Mr. Gelbspan, but we have no idea why the hell you wrote this. There is nothing new. You’re not telling us anything new at all. Why did you waste the newsprint on this thing?” And I said, “Welcome to my world.” There’s just no debate in other countries about this stuff. The debate is really on the policy side, how do we get these huge 70 percent reductions without threatening our economy, which is where the debate should be.
Do I see this happening in [U.S.] journalism? I certainly haven’t seen it fast enough, and I think the journalists are really betraying their responsibility. I think they’re really betraying their trust by not getting off their asses and finding out where the weight of opinion lies, and not being suckered into a false sense of balance.
Going away from that a bit, what do you think is the role of the individual in climate change? When you look at a film like this, and what people take away from it and do with it, what do you think the role of media can be in shaping what people see as their role in this, and what it can be?
One thing I would say is that a lot of people who are conscientious respond to environmental challenges with personal lifestyle changes, so lots of people are buying compact fluorescent bulbs, they’re carpooling, they’re recycling, and they’re driving less and so forth. That means very little when you need 70 percent reductions. On the other hand, what I’ve been telling people, and especially younger people, is that what’s really important is that if you do that, you tell people why you’re doing it. And if you really tell them why you’re doing it, the kind of political base you’re creating is way more important than the emissions avoided by you walking to the store instead of driving that day. Global warming can’t be solved by lifestyle changes. If we all sat in the dark and rode bicycles, it wouldn’t do it. If you want to make these personal lifestyle changes, that’s great. But you’ve got to tell people about them for them to be meaningful. That’s how you spread the word about global warming, and that’s how you build a political constituency around it that provides the base for the really macro, global-scale kind of stuff that needs to happen.
What is the major reason people haven’t tuned into this, public opinion-wise?
I think it’s testimony to the disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel lobby. It has been extremely effective. And they have … the coal and oil industry started this stuff in the early 1990s, and they bought huge amounts of air, and they really cast this thing as a debate, and then it got picked up in the late ’90s by ExxonMobil, who has spent more than $15 million since then. So I think the public is really still confused because of this strategy of keeping it a debate. And that’s why I think we haven’t seen the kind of upwelling that we’ve wanted to see. It was so interesting, I heard an interview with some obviously very poor people who were survivors of Katrina on NPR six or eight months ago, and they said, “Gee, before Katrina, if anybody mentioned global warming, we’d laugh at them. Now that’s all we talk about.”
Ross’s wife, Anne, interjects: I also think frankly it’s not just the disinformation. I think it’s too big, and people are paralyzed by it because it’s so big. Until there is a real sense of concrete things people can do, I think that’s a natural thing.
RG: I think that’s really true. When people are confronted with an overwhelming problem, and they don’t see an intellectually honest solution, that just makes them feel impotent, and that’s a really terrible feeling to sit with. So they just turn away. And that’s why I’ve been working so hard on getting these solution ideas out, not because I’m dogmatic about it, because if other people have other variations that are better, that’s great with me, but I think once people believe there is a solution, then they’ll let the bad news in and they won’t tune out psychologically.
Another of my favorite points in the film is where you say that you’re not in this because you love the trees. How has coming at it as a journalist rather than an environmentalist shaped the way you have been thinking about this problem all along?
The environmentalists wring they’re hands and they say, “Gee, the public doesn’t understand the science, and how do we overcome communications gaps, and how do we raise the level of concern?” Me, I’m an investigative reporter. I spent a lot of time doing investigative reporting, and to me this is clear as a bell. This pits the ability of this planet to support a complex civilization versus the survival of one of the largest commercial enterprises in history. The oil and coal industries do more than a trillion dollars a year in commerce, and that’s what this is about, and they are fighting for their survival. And to tell you the truth, there is no difference between the kind of corruption we’re seeing in this story and the kind of corruption we’ve seen before that leads to looted pension funds and defective products. It’s just that the stakes are so big here … For investigative journalists, it’s the same goddamn kind of story all over again, just with much bigger stakes and implications. So that’s why I see it that way instead of as an environmentalist. I mean, we love northern Maine, but that’s not what’s motivating us.
Do you consider yourself an environmentalist now? How has your opinion on the topic shifted?
That’s not the shift that’s made me uncomfortable. People call me an environmentalist; I’m not really, but if they call me that, that’s fine. What’s been a much more difficult personal transition has been going from being a reporter to being an advocate, to being an activist. I lost a lot of sleep over that, much more than being called an environmentalist. Sure, I’m an environmental reporter now. I used to report on many other things. It was moving from being a journalist to an advocate to an activist that was very, very difficult for me.
So what are your thoughts on that now?
I don’t call myself a journalist anymore on this stuff. On some other stuff, I do, but on this I don’t. I don’t think I am a journalist. I think I’m an advocate. I think the story is so huge and so important that that’s the choice I made. I sort of forfeit my 30-year status as a journalist basically, and I’ve even gone way beyond that, because I’m starting to propose global solutions, and I put together all of these economists and energy folks and government people to come up with these solutions, and I’m advocating for these solutions.
Anne Gelbspan: You know, I have to interject. That was your reason why you wouldn’t be affiliated, so you could get funded. He hasn’t been paid for all of these years because he didn’t want to be affiliated because then you would be jeopardizing your journalism.
RG: My credibility. It’s really important!
AG: But listening to you right now, that argument is gone. So you should be able to be affiliated.
RG: No, because none of the environmental groups have the balls to go out and say this is what we need to do, this big. No, they won’t. They’re still nibbling around the edges, saying 1990 levels by 2012 and stuff like that. When I was giving my talks earlier, before this became so generally known, I got great responses. People would say, “Gee, you’re not an enviro. You’re not a corporate type. You’re not from government. We believe you!” And that credibility was important. I’m not going to compromise my credibility, because it’s all I’ve got.
So do you miss being a straight journalist?
No. It was a really important part of my life, and I value very highly the values of traditional journalism. I had a great talk with a guy named Tom Powers, who’s a wonderful writer, and I remember when Tom was writing a book in the ’80s and it looked like the U.S. and the Soviet Union were going to have nuclear war. And he wrote a book about preparing for nuclear war. And I said, “Tom, why are you writing something like this? It’s so scary.” He said, “You write the stories life assigns you.” And that’s the way I feel about this one. So yes, I have very fond feelings about journalism. I have very strong feelings about protecting or promoting journalistic values, but nevertheless, I know that I have changed, and that I’m an advocate now.