James Redford knows that you know renewable technology will help fight climate change. But the filmmaker is also aware that you don’t really know what renewable technology actually looks like — and that there are steps regular people can make to ensure it’s universally adopted.
That’s why he made Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution. The documentary, which premiered Monday on HBO, follows Redford on a clean energy road trip across the United States, during which he gazes up in awe at wind turbines, stands among thousands of sun-tracking mirrors, and listens as people from Nevada to New York explain how their communities are pushing for the switch to clean energy. Rather than use this documentary to convince viewers that climate change is real — that’s already obvious, in his opinion — he aims to show people how they can actively mitigate its threat.
Inverse spoke with Redford — the son of long-time clean energy advocates Lola and Robert Redford — about the making of the film and why he believes clean, renewable energy will inevitably become the new normal.
What galvanized you to make this documentary?
In 2012 I saw “Chasing Ice” at the Sundance Film Festival, by a filmmaker named Jeff Orlowski, and that along with Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth,” was a wake up call and the end to any doubt about — not whether or not climate change was real — but that it was already happening. In looking at that, I started asking myself, ‘How are we going to deal with this? What’s the hope? Is there any way to stave off the worst of it?’
I was vaguely aware of alternative energy throughout my life, but not greatly so, and decided to take a deep look and see what was happening with the advent of renewable energy — wind, solar, and thermal. I very quickly realized wow, a lot is happening and it’s scaling up rapidly. That was just four years ago. I came to think that if only people understood how close we are to this technology and a scalable solution, they would be more engaged. You have to give people a good sense of what is wrong, but you also have to point them toward what they can do about it.
When you interviewed Ray Madus, the United States Secretary of the Navy, he described clean energy as what he sees as the new normal. Do you agree, after touring the U.S.?
I think it is becoming the new normal, and I think it’s inevitable. If you look at the evidence, we can already see that the cost has dropped. There are places in Texas and in the midwest where green power is cheaper. When the economics are on your side, things happen quickly.
I think we have time to go before it’s completely normal — there’s some issues surrounding transportation that we need to solve. But these problems that we’ve yet to fix are still going to be solved in the next decade. It’s a matter of will. What I saw going around the country, in towns and cities, and at a state level — there is a will. When you get up to the federal level, that’s when it seems to fall apart.
Clean energy is inevitable — it’s better and it’s cheaper. It’s just a better product. The question is, do we just let it unfold with normal markets pulling it, or do we want to embrace it and support it more to hold back the worst of climate change. That’s the ultimate question in my mind.
In the scene where you attend the 2014 People’s Climate March in the film, you express doubt about how effective these protests can be in reducing climate change. What are the most actionable steps people can take?
I think there are millions of Americans who can put panels on their roof — and they should — and they can do that for the same cost as they are currently paying for their electricity. The message to homeowners is that it’s not just some expensive toy — you can do it. You can even lease the panels if you don’t want to pay for them. It’s economically doable. There’s that, and then at the community level, there’s things that need to happen. There’s no reason why a community can’t come together and do something called community choice aggregation, which is when you go out, collectivize, and decide how committed your community is to buying clean energy and having it put on the grid. But let’s not kid ourselves — we need all of these utilities, like PG&E and ConEd, to be incentivized to make changes on a massive scale.
I feel like the biggest thing you can do at the city and state level is, as they did in Nevada, is to push for healthy policies to encourage utilities to use clean power. Americans need to show politicians that this is what they want.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.