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Climate Change Heroes

Climate Change Heroes

Author: Reilly Capps/Thursday, May 1, 2014/Categories: climate change

[Ahnold, from "Years of Living Dangerously"]

Unlike wars, elections, sporting events and crimes, natural disasters don't create celebrities. No celebrity came out of the Dust Bowl. No one got famous off the Irish potato famine.

This has held true, so far, for climate change.* But it stands to reason that climate change, since it will be bigger than the Dust Bowl and the potato famine put together, and also more universal, will create a celebrity -- hero or villain, I'm not sure. 

Celebrities already know this. They are trying to attach themselves to the issue in order to lend their fame, and to get more famous. "The Years of Living Dangerously," James Cameron's ambitious, beautiful and moving new show about climate change, uses, as correspondents, the Terminator and Indiana Jones and Jessica Alba. This has been tried before, notably by Leonardo di Caprio. But never with this wattage. 

But, often, on Cameron's show, the sky high production values and the megastars make it feel oddly ... fake. When Ahnold is out with fire fighters near a blaze, you feel like the flames are CGI and the firefighters are underwear models looking for their big break. When I realized the flames were real, and Ahnold was close to them, I started to root for the fire. Harrison Ford and Don Cheadle do actually get off their asses and go places (Harrison Ford to Indonesia, and Don Cheadle to Texas), but it's all a bit staged, bordering on ridiculous. Watch Han Solo in Indonesia, blustering about a forest that had been illegally cut down, sputtering, "I can't wait to meet with the minister!" (Note for the writer: Send Harrison Ford's character back to development.) 

But in the third episode, aired this weekend, the dynamic shifted. It wasn't about famous people lending their fame to this cause. It was about unknown people who deserve to become famous. This dynamic made the stories more human and more personal and more real. The producers re-discovered a universal law: victims can be celebrities, too.

The tradition of martyrdom goes back a long way, way before Jesus. In the Iliad, the death of Patroclus is what made Achilles fight the Trojans. Slavery had John Brown, gun control had Jim Brady and the holocaust had Anne Frank, just to name a few. These people serve as humanizing touchstones, because they were stuck in terrible situations and they made the best of things. They need the right amount of moxie and the right amount of bad luck.

"Years of Living Dangerously" has found this formula, only this time applied to climate change. First, it found Pat Dresch, a Staten Island woman who, during superstorm Sandy, watched her daughter and her husband carried off by the flood. She has the right amount of moxie and the right amount of bad luck and you want to cry for her story. Then the show introduces one of my all-time favorite politicians, Bob Inglis, whom I've written about many times before. He's an authentic conservative -- pro-gun, pro-life, pro-free markets -- who lost his seat in congress because he spoke the truth about climate change. He is a great martyr, because he was unluckily swept aside by the tide of Tea Party conservatism, which for some reason doesn't believe in climate change. And he has the right amount of moxie, since he's dedicating his life, now, to convincing other Republicans that climate change is real and man-made and that the United States should pursue a market-based solution. 

Could Bob Inglis be the first real, big climate change celebrity? If he can give conservatives an entry point into climate change, could he create real change? Bob Inglis is a profile in courage, and an example to the rest of us as to how we can say difficult things.

The more relevant question isn't, Who will be the first big climate change celebrity?, but, Who will be the first big climate change martyr? People like Inglis, Tim DeChristopher and Pat Dresch are all martyrs for different reasons, and they are still relatively unknown. 

But there's a funny thing about martyrs: they eventually turn into heroes. 

When the history of climate change is written, thousands of years from now, these kinds of people may one day pass Ahnold and Bloomberg and Ford as the most famous names in climate change, and the reasons why things happened the way they did. 

*(Al Gore is the closest to a climate change celebrity: but he was the vice president first. And when this geek counts as a famous person, you're in trouble.)

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