Actor Rainn Wilson (Office) made headlines last year when he changed his Twitter name to “Rainfall Heat Wave Extreme Winter Wilson” to draw attention to climate change.
Along with social scientist Professor Gail Whiteman and writer/producer Chuck Tatham, Wilson co-founded Climate Basecamp, with the aim of using pop culture as a launching pad to educate the public about the science of climate change .
On Monday, Climate Basecamp kicked off the first day of Climate Week in New York, with Whiteman and Tatham handing out free scoops of Blue Marble organic ice cream to draw attention to the climate crisis.
I spoke to Rainn Wilson and Professor Gail Whiteman about the goals of Climate Basecamp, how pop culture can be used to educate, and disappearing ice cream flavors.
What inspired you to get involved in climate change activism?
Rainn Wilson: I realized about six years ago that I really cared passionately about climate change and communicating climate science, but all I was doing was sending dozens of angry tweets to climate deniers. That was the extent of my activism. I realized I needed to do something more and get off my butt. That’s when I started working with Gail (Whiteman).
The first thing we did together was film a series about the budget travel climate called An Idiot’s Guide to Climate Change for my digital media company at the time, SoulPancake.
After that, I camped with a group of climate scientists in Davos, at the World Economic Forum, on the grounds of a fancy hotel. We shipped an iceberg to the COP26 conference in Glasgow and installed it outside; it slowly melted as delegates entered the field.
We bottled Arctic melt water and distributed it to participants along with information about Arctic melting. We created the Arctic Risk Name Changer app which has been viewed millions of times.
We are continuing this interesting and unique storytelling work with climate scientists. I want to help amplify this information.
What inspired this approach to communicating this existential threat through culture?
Gail Whiteman: Climate science is compelling, rigorous, and frightening as we approach significant climate tipping points. I felt it was really important to experiment with communication and determine which target audiences we needed to reach in order to make a difference.
So I created an original organization called Arctic Basecamp, whose mission was to speak science to power. We would go to the World Economic Forum, camp out in a big science tent, and get rid of the mess.
People power is a huge untapped resource. Most climate scientists don’t talk to ordinary people. It’s not their expertise, they don’t know how to do it. Over the last four years, I’ve learned from Rainn that people are interested, as long as you talk to them in an interesting way. We thought we would talk through culture, through our favorite things, like ice cream.
For Climate Basecamp, our mission is to talk science and culture, looking at five areas: food, entertainment, music, sports and fashion.
What’s your favorite ice cream flavor that’s currently in danger of disappearing?
RW: I’m going to go with pistachio. Gail, do you have any info on pistachio?
GW: Pistachio is threatened by changes in temperature, including colder periods and warmer periods. Although it can be maintained with a little water, it needs it during the growing season. As weather conditions and precipitation change, this will become a problem.
It is also important to note that insects, microbes and fungi are changing with climate change, which will effectively threaten the pistachio as extreme weather events increase.
My favorite is a good vanilla, there is nothing better. Of course, it is also under threat. The same goes for mango, chocolate and coffee ice creams.
What is the specific threat facing chocolate?
GW: It is cocoa beans, grown largely in West Africa, that are facing enormous difficulties due to climate change. Temperature change, water change, extreme weather events and pests, things that eat it and drill it. These things spread.
The final problem with chocolate is that it is made largely in one place. These local farmers definitely live below the poverty line. Fair trade chocolate is a real issue in a world facing climate challenges.
Were you drawn to environmentalism through pop culture?
RW: I had a transcendent and devastating experience watching Quiet operationwhich was one of the first successful independent science fiction films, in which the very last forest exists in space.
A robot waters the trees and takes care of all the plants. But on planet Earth, all the forests are dead. I remember seeing this when I was seven, and it was very moving.
GW: My greatest experience would be in nature itself; I spent two years living with indigenous people in the subarctic far north of Canada. It wasn’t a movie, but it felt like it when I was experiencing it. It completely changed the mind, body and soul.
But the film that struck me the most is Don’t look for. I looked at it myself, cooped up in the pandemic, and said, “this is my life.” I almost had a breakdown. I had to really dig deep to overcome these emotions.
I got away with saying that there was no sudden stop, as was the case with a comet. Second, I had to remind myself that we still have hope. The final scene where they are all sitting around the table holding hands; I thought, well, at the end of the day, we still have love.
By communicating through culture, does the message risk getting lost in the noise?
RW: I think you’re part of the noise if you do things the same way, which is people on the left shouting statistics, and people on the right denying science and complaining about government overreach. . It’s the noise.
If you film melting ice cream cones and talk about how our favorite flavors are quickly disappearing, then you have an impactful visual and a unique take on climate, something we haven’t really heard about.
This is the kind of work we want to do, telling climate science stories in a fun, unique and irreverent way. Ways that break up the clutter. It’s a lighthearted way to start this conversation, which is pretty terrible.
GW: I think we need to experiment, and scientists need to get out of their comfort zone and try to talk to people in a way that makes them listen. And if that doesn’t work, we change track and do something else.
It’s about helping to amplify the message in a way that people understand it, to communicate some of the things that they can do to implement that change, rather than just lecturing them.
Rainn, your new book, Soul Boom, argues that humanity is in need of a spiritual revolution. Do you see this as linked to the need for an ecological revolution?
RW: One of the fundamental theses of the book is that we live in the midst of many pandemics. I wrote the book during the COVID pandemic, but we are in a pandemic of materialism and racism. We are also the granddaddy of all pandemics, the climate change pandemic.
Legislating and taxing oil companies, stopping burning coal, all of this is very important. But we also need to examine how humans have become so disconnected from nature.
How are we so insensitive to the needs of Mother Earth that we have no problem having billions of cars on the planet, pumping gases into the atmosphere, thinking there will be no repercussions?
It’s interesting, because people really care about dogs and cats, about animal rescues, they love animals. But we are in the midst of the greatest animal extinction in our history. And we can do something about it.
There is a spiritual component to this, which is a reunification, a compassion for the beauty and awe of nature. It is one of the fundamental elements of what it means to be spiritual.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity