In Jane Fonda’s new book about climate action, she writes that “change is coming – by disaster or by design,” and she could either watch it happen or help tip the balance towards the latter. Inspired by Greta Thunberg and the global climate change protests of 2019, she decided to drop all other commitments and move to Washington, D.C. for four months prior to the COVID-19 shutdowns.
Once in the capital, she and Greenpeace organized weekly Fire Drill Friday protests that urged Congress to pass meaningful climate legislation. While practicing peaceful civil disobedience, Fonda was joined by and arrested with several other prominent members of the entertainment community.
In a recent conversation with Oceana, she shared what fuels her activism and how others can get involved, too.
What do you feel was the single greatest accomplishment of the Fire Drill Friday protests, and what do you want to achieve going forward?
JF: On the last Friday there were over 2,000 people and over 300 were arrested. We never intended to have very large crowds (though they grew bigger than we anticipated). Our goal was to raise awareness of the urgency of the climate crisis, which we succeeded at because of our willingness to engage in non-violent civil disobedience and risk arrest.
Our media coverage was vast. People came from all over the country and most said it was their first time doing such a thing. Your board chair, the wonderful Sam Waterston, is a shining example.
This is what we wanted. According to a Yale study, there are millions of people who are concerned about the climate crisis but have never taken action because no one has asked them. We were asking them and continue to.
Since March 2020, our virtual Fire Drill Fridays have had 9 million viewers across all platforms. Thousands volunteered in the leadup to the election and made over 4 million calls and texts to climate voters who sat out the previous election. Again, most had never volunteered before.
Negative impacts to the ocean, while significant, are unseen by the average person. Climate change presents similar challenges. How can we convince people who haven’t witnessed the effects of climate change firsthand to care about an invisible threat?
JF: Great question. Well, it’s getting harder to not notice the effects of climate change: the catastrophic fires in the West, rising seas, tens of millions of climate refugees, more frequent and severe hurricanes, prolonged drought, flooding, hotter summer weather. There are those who, despite all this, refuse to believe what scientists are saying. I’m not sure we should waste our time with them. It’s like the people who still say COVID is a political hoax.
But for the others – get them to listen to or read what climate science is saying. The scientists are unanimous in saying it’s very dire and time is running out. If we miss the nine-year mark (2030), at which time they say we must have cut our carbon emissions in half, it will be pretty much out of our hands, although every half degree of warming we can prevent will save millions of lives and species.
Some have questioned whether climate change can remain an important agenda item when racial justice and global health crises like COVID-19 demand our immediate attention. Do these issues really need to be tackled separately?
JF: They must be tackled together, for they are part of the same root causes: greed, racism, hubris. There would likely not be a climate crisis without the racism that leads the fossil fuel industry to put its drilling, fracking, refining, exporting, and dumping of coal ash in the places the least able to fight back: low-income areas, communities of color, and Indigenous lands. They even call them ‘sacrifice zones.’
The toxic landscapes that make up oil and gas infrastructures wouldn’t be tolerated in populations with political and social clout. This is why calls for a Green New Deal and Blue New Deal are critical. They address economic and racial injustices in their solutions to the climate crisis.
Epidemiologists say that with global warming, pandemics are certain to become more common as Arctic ice sheets melt, releasing pathogens we have no resistance to.
Mosquitoes, rodents, and other vectors are moving from their usual habitats because of climate change, so more serious diseases are starting to show up. Developing a more prepared, robust, and democratic health care system is very much part of preparing for what’s coming in terms of extreme weather events.
How can celebrities use their platform to demand positive change?
JF: It’s a very personal thing, and not everyone is psychologically equipped to handle organized criticism. On the other hand, we all want meaning in our lives. Knowing that we care about more than just ourselves is a great feeling, and it makes growing old a lot easier!
When we, as celebrities, join the fight for justice, democracy, and the climate (saving civilization), it not only helps the cause – it makes us feel good. Activism is the best antidote for malaises and depression.
We don’t have to be the experts. There are plenty of experts to call on. Celebrity activists are the repeaters, the tall towers on the tops of mountains that pick up weak signals from the valley and broadcast them more widely.
That’s what the Fire Drill Fridays movement is doing. We get the most beautiful and poignant but little-heard voices from the frontlines and give them a platform, with celebrities introducing them. That’s the role for celebrities, and it’s a wonderful, joy-filled one.
You authored a book titled What Can I Do?: My Path from Climate Despair to Action. What advice do you have for people who are new to activism?
JF: Read my book. But for sure, don’t be a lone activist. Even if every one of us bought electric cars, got rid of single-use plastics, and went vegan, it can’t add up to enough to get us where we need to be fast.
Join a well-established, strategic organization. Make certain it’s not one with all white men on the board and one token woman and person of color. That is so yesterday, and it’s ineffective. Organizations focus on different things: research, electoral work, conservation, and so forth.
The world is in a perilous place right now. Science tells us we have nine years to keep warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius. This is going to take unprecedented numbers of people demanding an end to fossil fuels which, by the way, is the primary thing that’s killing the oceans.
So, in my view, activism should focus on mobilizing the largest numbers of people to engage in non-violent direct action. Again, read my book. It’s very user-friendly.
The planet took a lot of hits in 2020, from devastating wildfires in Australia and North America to continued deforestation in Brazil and environmental protection rollbacks in the U.S. What is one piece of good news for our blue planet that you took solace in last year?
JF: We elected our first climate president. Now we just have to hold his feet to the fire.
This story appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Oceana Magazine. Read it online here.