Actor Rainn Wilson (The Office) made headlines last year when he changed his Twitter name to “Rainnfall Heat Wave Extreme Winter Wilson” to draw attention to climate change.
Along with social science expert Professor Gail Whiteman and writer/producer Chuck Tatham, Wilson co-founded Climate Basecamp, with the goal of using pop culture as a launchpad to educate the public on the science of climate change.
On Monday, Climate Basecamp kicked off the first day of Climate Week in New York City, with Whiteman and Tatham handing out free scoops of organic Blue Marble ice cream to draw attention to the climate crisis.
I spoke to Rainn Wilson and Professor Gail Whiteman about the aims of Climate Basecamp, how pop culture can be used to educate, and endangered flavors of ice cream.
What prompted you to get involved in climate change activism?
Rainn Wilson: I had this realization about six years ago that I really cared passionately about climate change and communicating climate science, but all I was doing was sending out 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 is we filmed a low-budget travel climate series called An Idiot’s Guide to Climate Change for my digital media company at the time, SoulPancake.
After that, I camped out with a bunch of climate scientists at Davos at the World Economic Forum on the grounds of a fancy hotel. We shipped an iceberg to the COP26 conference in Glasgow and had it set up outside; it was slowly melting as the delegates were entering the grounds.
We bottled Arctic melt water, and handed it out to participants with information about Arctic melt. We did the Arctic Risk Name Changer app that had millions of views.
We’re continuing that work of interesting, unique storytelling with climate scientists. I want to help amplify that information.
What inspired this approach to communicate this existential threat through culture?
Gail Whiteman: The climate science is compelling, it’s rigorous, and it’s scary as we approach important climate tipping points. I felt that it was really important to experiment with communication and figure out what target audiences needed to be reached in order to change the dial.
So, I set up an original organisation called Arctic Basecamp, and the mission was to speak science to power. We would go to the World Economic Forum, we would camp in a big science tent and break through the clutter.
People power is a huge untapped resource. Most climate scientists do not talk to regular people. That’s not their expertise, they don’t know how to do it. Over the last four years, I learned from Rainn that people are interested, as long as you talk to them in a way that is interesting. We figured we would talk through culture, through our favorite things, like ice cream.
For Climate Basecamp, our mission is to speak science to culture, looking at five areas: food, entertainment, music, sports and fashion.
What is your favorite flavor of ice cream that is currently in danger of going extinct?
RW: I’m gonna go with pistachio. Gail, you got any facts on pistachio?
GW: Pistachio is threatened by temperature changes, including colder snaps and warmer snaps. Although it can be maintained with a little bit of water, it needs it during the growing season. As weather patterns change and precipitation changes, that will be a problem.
Also, importantly, is the fact that that bugs, microbes and fungi change with climate change, which will indeed threaten pistachio as extreme weather events increase.
My favorite is a good vanilla, there’s nothing better. Of course, it’s also under threat. So is mango, chocolate, coffee-flavored ice cream.
What is the specific threat to chocolate?
GW: It’s the cocoa beans, which are grown largely in West Africa, which is facing tremendous strain because of climate change. Temperature change, water change, extreme weather events and pests, stuff that eats it and bores into it. Those things are spreading.
The final problem with chocolate is that it is made mostly in one place. Those local farmers are definitely below the poverty line. Fair trade chocolate is a real issue under a climate-challenged world.
Do you have an experience of being drawn to environmentalism through pop culture?
RW: I had a transcendent and devastating experience while watching Silent Running, which was one of the first really successful independent science fiction films, where the very last forest exists in outer space.
A robot is watering the trees and tending to all the plants. But on planet Earth, all of the forests have died. I remember seeing that at age seven, and it was very moving.
GW: My biggest experience that would be in nature itself; I spent two years living with Indigenous Peoples in the far North subarctic of Canada. That wasn’t a movie, but it seemed like it was when I was living it. It was completely mind, body and soul changing.
But the movie that had the biggest impact on me was Don’t Look Up. I watched it by myself, locked down in the pandemic, and I said, ‘this is my life.’ I nearly had a breakdown. I had to really dig deep to work through those emotions.
I got through it by saying there’s no hard stop, like there was with a comet. Secondly, I had to remind myself that we still have hope. The closing scene where they all sit around the table holding hands; I thought, well, at the end of the day, we still have love.
By communicating through culture is there a danger that the message might be lost in the noise?
RW: I think you’re part of the noise if you’re just doing things in the same old way, which is people on the political left, shouting out statistics, and people on the political right, denying science and complaining about government overreach. That’s the noise.
If you’re shooting melting ice cream cones and talking about how our favorite flavors are rapidly going extinct, then you’ve got a punchy visual and a unique spin on climate, something we haven’t really heard about.
This is the kind of work that we want to do, to tell climate science stories in a fun, unique, irreverent way. Ways that break through the clutter. It’s a lighthearted vessel to start this conversation, which is kind of dreadful.
GW: I think we’ve got to experiment, and scientists have to get out of their comfort zone and try to speak to people in a way where they are going to listen. And if it doesn’t work, we change track and we do something else.
It’s about helping amplify the message in a way people understand, to communicate certain things they can do to enact that change, versus just lecturing them.
Rainn, your new book, Soul Boom, argues that humanity is in need of a spiritual revolution. Do you view this as connected to the need for an ecological revolution?
RW: One of the foundational theses of the book is that we are living in the midst of many pandemics. I wrote the book during the COVID pandemic, but we’re in a materialism pandemic and a racism pandemic. We’re also in the granddaddy of all pandemics, the climate change pandemic.
Legislation and taxing oil companies, stopping burning coal, these are all very important. But we also need to examine how have humans become so disconnected from nature.
How are we so desensitized to the needs of Mother Earth that we have no problem having billions of cars on the planet, pumping gases out into the atmosphere, thinking that there are not going to be repercussions?
It’s interesting, because people really care about dogs and cats, pet rescues, they love animals. But we’re in the middle of the largest animal extinction in our history. And we can do something about it.
There’s a spiritual component to this, which is a reunification, a compassion for the beauty and awe of nature. That is one of the foundational elements of what it is to be spiritual.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity