INTERVIEW: "Climate change is in everybody's backyard" – Robert Redford

Academy Award-winning actor and environmental activist Robert Redford, at the United Nations for a high-level event on climate change, speaks to the UN News Centre. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

1 July 2015 – Actor and environmental activist Robert Redford paid his first visit to the United Nations Headquarters in New York this week.

The reason for his visit: to address the UN General Assembly’s High-Level Meeting on Climate Change, which aimed to energize multilateral cooperation on the issue ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year. In the French capital, countries will discuss an agreement intended to succeed to the landmark Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr. Redford has been heavily involved in environmental issues for decades, renowned for his commitment to it and for speaking out on various issues affecting the environment, in addition to serving as a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York City-based non-profit organization, since 1975.

Now climate change is in everybody’s backyard. The question is to make people aware of it, to make people aware not only of the dangers but what the positive move would be, and bring it to their attention that it’s already in their own backyard.

After his speech to the General Assembly, Mr. Redford spoke with the UN News Centre about his visit, his experience in the environmental movement and his thoughts on the need to fight climate change.

UN News Centre: What brings you to UN Headquarters this week?

Robert Redford: I’m here because I was asked to come – which was an honour – and also here because I think climate change has moved up the register of issues to be considered, and it’s done that because it’s a current issue and it’s a current danger unless it gets addressed. I thought any voice that could be lent to the effort should be used and so I’m here for that.

UN News Centre: Syria, Central African Republic, Yemen – these are just a few of the pressing concerns on the global agenda. Given so many other urgent topics, how hard is it to get the international community to pay attention to climate change?

Robert Redford speaks about how he first became part of the environmental movement and the importance of combatting global climate change for future generations. Credit: United Nations

Robert Redford: I think you can get them to pay attention if you place climate change where it belongs. It’s usually way down at the bottom. The environment, I've experienced over the years, gets little attention compared to other things. But I think because of what’s happened now – change is in the air, you can feel it – we’re in a period of change that’s positive with also some negative. Positive: you see what the Pope said. Positive: you see what happened this week with same-sex marriage; you see what’s happened with [US] Supreme Court decisions.

From my point of view those are all pretty positive things. But what sits behind and on top of all this is the bigger problem that concerns everybody’s health – every country, every nation, every person. They’re all under the umbrella of climate. And because climate change is such a harsh topic with very little time to correct it – there’s been so much damage done over the years to the planet – that if we don’t do something sooner rather than later, then I don’t know what kind of planet we’re going to have to live on.

UN News Centre: No negotiations were due to take place at the meeting you addressed on Monday, so what exactly can the global public expect to come out of this meeting?

Robert Redford: What can they expect? I don’t know. I don’t know what the consensus is here, this is a first time for me so I don’t have any experience knowing how they operate, how they think, how they vote – I can only hope. But I think that because every nation is affected, this issue gets their attention.

UN News Centre: What would it take to get everybody’s attention on this issue?

Robert Redford: Years ago there used to be a saying, they called it “NIMBY,” which is an abbreviation of “Not in My Back Yard.” People would not get interested or focus on anything, particularly if it was a danger, unless it was in their backyard. It was somebody else’s problem – they didn’t have to think about it, or worry about it, or address it. But now climate change is in everybody’s backyard. The question is to make people aware of it, to make people aware not only of the dangers but what the positive move would be, and bring it to their attention that it’s already in their own backyard. Look at the drought in California, the flooding, what’s happened in New York – it’s pretty clear that something is happening.

UN News Centre: The Pope recently spoke out about the dangers of climate change. Yet there are those who say the Pope is not an expert on science… your thoughts?

Robert Redford: Please, that’s insulting. The fact is what he’s saying is so much in need – I salute him, on many fronts, particularly that one because he’s placing it where it belongs, as a moral issue, and therefore there’s a spiritual component to that. And thank God that he’s placing it that way.

It’s not about politics. The moral issue of climate change should transcend politics. If it’s reduced to politics, we’re going to have the same old yin-yang, the same old problems, the same old fighting, the same old narrow-minded bickering between ideologies. It’s going to be a mess. Let’s get above it and take advantage of change and make it positive.

UN News Centre:  One of the General Assembly speakers was a teenage activist who later said that adults are having a party with the environment and the next generation are stuck with cleaning it up. What are you views on that and the role of youth in climate change?

Robert Redford: I would start with an apology to the new generation. The new generation – focusing on the role of women and politics, focusing on youth – to me I see that as an enormous plus, whereas maybe 15 years ago, no, because I think America’s youth was focused more on other issues, like how to get ahead, how to make money, and the environment was not on their minds.

But now it is. I’m very encouraged by this new generation. They’re better informed, they’re more knowledgeable, and the more knowledgeable they are, the more they get concerned, because it’s going to be their future. Our time is kind of done. We should apologize for what’s being left for them to work with – they don’t have a lot.

But I’m looking forward to them taking the reins because not only do they deserve it, but I think it’s time, and also I think it’s a good time because the new generation is just different than before. It’s more active. I think it has the quality and the qualifications to take the reins and move things forward with what little we have left of our planet. I’m just sorry we didn’t leave them much.

UN News Centre:  You have been involved in the environmental movement for decades. What first got you involved?

Robert Redford: I think if you ran it all the way back, it started when I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles. When I was a child, my memories really began at the end of the Second World War. It was a beautiful city, the air was fresh, it was clean, there were green spaces in between communities. I had a paper route on a bicycle. I rode around different neighbourhoods, it was fresh and clean. I loved it.

Then suddenly, when the war ended, everything changed. It’s like Los Angeles became something at the end of a rainbow and everybody clamoured to get in there. And suddenly everything changed. Suddenly there were skyscrapers, there were freeways, there was pollution. So I saw a city that I really loved sort of disappear under my feet and I moved away. I moved to the mountains. I spent time in the Sierras and worked at Yosemite National Park, and when I did that, that connection to nature hit me like a ton of bricks – I said this is where I want to be. I want to be in and around nature. I want to preserve it, if I can, because I could see that we were already a development-oriented society, I knew that. But the question for me was: if we only have that, we won’t have anything of nature left. So I guess I got committed at an early age to do whatever I could.

And then in 1970, I was at a conference in Vale, Colorado, and I remember there was a picture of renewable resources and non-renewable resources, extractable resources – oil, gas, coal – and all the politics, all the money, was going into non-renewables. And over here, where you had wind, solar, geothermal – that was new then, very new, so it wasn’t getting much attention – but there was nothing there. I thought well, if this continues, there won’t be anything left. It might make some short-term money for someone, but there won’t be anything left for future generations. But over here, look at all the possibilities for alternative energy and what’s happening. So I guess at that time I made a commitment to myself to do whatever I could, raise whatever small voice I had in that direction and so I have.

UN News Centre: What have been the greatest changes you have seen over the past 40 years or so of environmental activism?

Robert Redford: There was little to no change for much of that 40 years. Things don’t change quickly. You have to work hard, you have to wait, you have to be patient. I’m sorry that it didn’t happen soon because I think we would have been better off had it happened sooner. But you have to live with what you got. I think what is happening now is that it’s dawning on people, the value of alternative energy, and the jobs and industry that could be created from it. And as soon as you talk about industries and jobs then that changes the whole picture, because before the argument was always “oil and gas, that produces energy but also jobs and this doesn’t.” But now people are realizing that not only does alternative energy do this, but in a much better way that is sustainable for our planet.

UN News Centre: In your speech to the General Assembly, you said that you are an actor by trade, but an activist by nature. Where role does your environmental work play in your life?

The environment, I've experienced over the years, gets little attention compared to other things. But I think because of what’s happened now – change is in the air, you can feel it.

Robert Redford: My artistic life used to be just painting and then it became theatre and film, so that’s my artistic life. And then there’s my civic life, and that is the environment and the role that nature can play in the continuation of our society. So it’s divided into two sections: art and nature. I guess you can boil it down to that.

UN News Centre: In a nutshell, what message would you give to the international community on the importance of fighting climate change?

Robert Redford: First of all, pay attention. Put it out there as a topic. Once it’s out there as a topic, request that others pay attention to the topic and then see how, if they look around, how they can see why it is such a topic. If you talk about climate change, all you have to do is look around. Unfortunately, I declared some negative examples: flooding, drought, wildfires. But all you have to do is open your eyes and pay attention and you’ll look this way or that way, and you’ll see fire, flood, tornadoes, hurricanes, and if that’s the case, you can’t tell me it’s not going to affect people. So I would say pay attention and look at how climate change is being evidenced around you.

News Tracker: past stories on this issue

'Journey towards bold climate action is at a critical moment,' UN General Assembly told

Related Stories

In-depth Interviews