Bringing ‘Inconvenient’ Climate Change Information to Audiences Big and Small

The Climate Reality Project is training a new army of activists to carry on and expand former Vice President Al Gore's work on climate change.

Bringing Climate Reality to Audiences Big and Small

Former Vice President Al Gore speaks at his 30th Climate Reality Leadership Corps training on Sept. 29, 2015. (Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg/Corbis via Getty Images)

It’s been a decade since An Inconvenient Truth inserted climate change into the public consciousness and helped earn former Vice President Al Gore a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in environmental activism. Now an even more impassioned Gore is back in An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, and the film follows him as he continues the fight for meaningful action and progressive policy on climate change.

Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, An Inconvenient Sequel also shows Gore and his organization – The Climate Reality Project – as it trains a new army of activists to carry on and expand the reach of his work. The Climate Reality Leadership Corps now numbers nearly 13,000 around the world. Filmmaker Jessica Wang talked with one of them — New York-based actor Tim Guinee – about his work as a climate leader and how to persevere with grass roots environmental activism in the era of President Trump.



Jessica Wang: What made you decide to become a Climate Reality Project leader?

Tim Guinee: Around 1976, I read a letter from Jacques Cousteau describing notions of what climate change might mean. It was the first time that I’d heard of it, and it was terrifying. And it was a lot of things that we’ve seen come to pass. Back then, the melting of the ice caps felt unimaginable. So I’ve been involved with environmental work my whole life.

And somebody told me about the Climate Reality Project that Mr. Gore had started, which trains people to give the lecture that he gives. I had seen An Inconvenient Truth, his first film. And I applied, thinking there’s no way I’m going to get in this — this is for scientists and really smart people, and here I’m an actor, it’s how I make my living. I went to the training, and Al Gore came on stage, followed by three or four other Nobel Laureates, the head of the NSA, just all these people. I was seated at a table with some people, and I asked the woman sitting next to me what she did for a living, and she said she invented trees — genetically inventing species that have never existed. In vague terms, I understand what she meant, but it was completely beyond me.

The movement demands all of us and our special gifts that we can bring.

— Tim Guinee

So I went into this thing feeling like this idiot actor who wears makeup and puts on costumes and mouths words that smarter people than me write down in scripts. And then you sit there, and people are teaching, and you’re learning, and the thing I realized very quickly was that if these scientists with their wonderful brains and these politicians and environmentalists and activists have not solved this problem, they need more. They need an actor, and they need a plumber, and they need a line chef, and they need a fireman. The movement demands all of us and our special gifts that we can bring. And that was a really great moment realizing there was a place that I fit in that let me get involved in the work that I think is morally incumbent on me to do.

JW: What exactly are you and the other members of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps doing?

TG: We’re trained to give the climate lecture, which we all modify to some degree. A huge amount of what we do is education. There is also a large component of staying in contact with each other and doing advocacy work. And this is actually really the truth — the groups like or Sierra Club or NRDC — they all kind of work together. There’s no sense of rivalry; there’s a sense of thank God you’re here. And there’s an online platform where all of the climate reality leaders share the things you’re doing — did you meet with a senator, do a talk show, etc. This year so far I’ve done 1,500 actions.

JW: Wow — 1,500 actions by yourself already this year?

TG: Yeah, the interesting thing when you get organized in yourself, it’s very possible. I mean, I have a whole life. I’m a married guy, we live in an old farmhouse, I have an acting career that takes me around, and [I] do all these other things. So this is a percentage of my day and my life and my focus. But there is something to when you get the tools, and when you get organized in yourself, and when you feel righteous about the cause that you’re working for. And I have to say — I’m not hesitant anymore.

I think it’s very good to walk into a group of people who disagree with you and talk and show your face. And in these days in which we hide from each other, in simply saying, “I believe in this enough to walk in front of you with a different idea.” That has incredible power to it.

— Tim Guinee

I spoke twice last week at a firehouse that was a largely conservative firehouse. And it’s really important to recognize that there are big heroes on this thing on both sides of the political aisle. And weather affects Democrats and Republicans alike. But of course, there are crowds that are more reticent to hearing it than others, and I have a real strong feeling that one of our problems in our country now is we live in this world where everyone has their own TV channel and YouTube channel and internet — and we’re very polemical. I think it’s very good to walk into a group of people who disagree with you and talk and show your face. And in these days in which we hide from each other, in simply saying, “I believe in this enough to walk in front of you with a different idea.” That has incredible power to it. I’m trying to convince New York state to let me go into the prison system and talk to prisoners about this. Even though they don’t vote. I think it’s important, and I think they’re an underserved community of people.

JW: How do you find these audiences to give talks to?

TG: You know, I’ll give this talk to an audience of one. I was flying down to act in a TV show down in New Orleans, and I’m sitting on the plane and I have my laptop with me and I have Al Gore’s new book. A man sits down next to me on the plane and he goes, “Oh my God, how depressing is that book?” And I said, “You know what, I gotta tell you, the world is in rough shape, but I’m actually more optimistic about climate change than I’ve ever been in my life.” And he says, “What are you talking about?” So I open my computer and do the lecture for him, just him and me. This happens a fair amount. And it turns out this guy is the president of a big internet company in New Orleans, so I finish my talk with him, and he invites me to do it for 120 employees of his internet company. This just seems to happen. I’ll talk to anybody, anywhere. And there are 13,000 people like me — there are people who do a much better job of this than I do.

JW: Have you seen a shift since you’ve been doing this of people being more open or receptive to learning about climate change issues?

TG: I’ll tell you one story I find fascinating. There’s a woman who’s in charge of the Georgia tea party, and she put solar panels on her roof because it’s cheaper than electricity. The Georgia government apparently decided, at the behest of the power companies, I presume, to significantly tax people putting solar panels on their roof. This outraged this woman, and now she is an enormous proponent of renewable energy. And she says, I don’t talk about climate change when I talk to my people; I talk to them about getting rid of the dependence on fossil fuel, about how a decentralized energy system makes us less vulnerable to terrorists. There are all of these reasons why this makes sense for all sides of the aisle, and I think people are hungry for it.

JW: What advice would you give to those who despair at how overwhelming the problem seems, especially under the Trump administration? What can they do?

TG: Despair is the same as giving up; it’s the same as helping the problem. I don’t believe in it. I don’t allow it. I get it — it is overwhelming. But if you wallow in it, you’re part of the problem. So that’s one thing.

The second thing is, years ago, I was in Washington helping to push an environmental bill and I was walking around going from Senate office to office doing drop-in visits. While I was there, there was a school shooting. I said to legislative aide to legislative aide, are you getting a lot of phone calls from the pro-gun lobby or gun control lobby, and they said no, not really. And what I really realized, and believe is true, is that our despair about our ability to affect government means that most of us never to try to affect the government. There is enormous power in making phone calls and writing letters.

My conversations with many, many government people on both sides of the aisle have showed me they want to do the right thing. But what they need so that they can do the right thing is to understand that public sentiment is clearly behind them, which removes to some degree their need to look toward corporate money and things to raise enough money for re-election.

The third and last thing: Adam Werbach, who was the onetime president of the Sierra Club, wrote a book on advocacy, and in the last chapter, he said the other thing is you gotta refuel. You have to find time to connect with the thing that you love. If you love nature, get out in nature, don’t just advocate. Because then you’re gonna have the power behind your convictions.

JW: What keeps you motivated to keep up the fight? At the end of a long week, after you’ve given 10 talks, and you’re exhausted from balancing work, family and everything else in between, what keeps you going?

TG: My wife and I don’t have kids. And I’ve always felt like it was my responsibility on some level to leave a better world than I came into. There’s a poem by a great Spanish poet named Antonio Machado that says the wind called on my soul one brilliant spring day with an odor of jasmine. And the wind said in return for the odor of my jasmine, I’d like the odor of all of your roses. And I said, I have no roses, all of the flowers in my garden are dead. And the wind left. It took the withered petals and the yellowed leaves and I wept and I said to myself what have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you. And I feel that. I feel that as a deep moral longing to not let this whole thing disappear into people’s profits.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Speak Truth to Power is in theaters across the country this weekend. Watch the trailer:

Jessica Wang

Jessica Wang started her journalistic career in the fast-moving world of sports reporting, though quickly branched out into the general news and education beats for newspapers in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Stockton, California. After stints at CBS Radio and the ABC News Investigative Unit, she found her home at PBS — spending time at Wide Angle, NOW, and Frontline before joining the Bill Moyers team for a series of documentaries and programs. Her work there won an Emmy award and several nominations. She then helped launch a new program with Ali Velshi at Al Jazeera America. She is currently working on her first feature-length documentary. Follow her on Twitter: @j_k_wang.