Jane Fonda was excited about my vacation.
Strange as those words are to type, they became true on the last day of August. The golden afternoon sun was slouching west as I logged onto Zoom to see the Hollywood icon staring back at me. Slightly starstruck, I introduced myself and stuttered something about how special today was for me – I was interviewing the Jane Fonda, then heading to the airport for a short trip to Oslo with my wife.
Fonda smiled. “I love the people of Norway,” she said.
“Those people are different, it’s like their sharp edges are gone,” she said. “It’s what happens when you live in a country where the government takes care of you and sees you and respects you and people feel safe.”
It’s the kind of thing she’s always wanted her compatriots to see for themselves.
Right around the time she starred in such films as “Barbarella” and “Fun with Dick and Jane,” Fonda became the face of “feminist rebellion,” a “renegade” whose political provocations would include visiting North Vietnam at the height of the United States’ war effort, raising money to bail Black nationalists out of jail, and facing arrest alongside Indigenous activists.
Unlike other movie stars so ensconced in elitist comforts that the U.S. appeared to be a “shining city on a hill,” Fonda decided early on that she wanted to be at ground level, on the frontlines of the political struggles that would define American life in the early decades of hegemony. It came as an epiphany shortly after she paid the deposit for a hilltop rental home in New York, which she had chosen in part for its potential for hosting fundraisers.
“I don’t want to be a person who lives on a hill and doles out money,” the “Grace and Frankie” star recalled on a recent afternoon. “I want to be on the bottom with people who we’re raising money for.”
Since 2019, she’s been arrested nearly half a dozen times and held weekly climate demonstrations she calls Fire Drill Fridays, the streaming version of which just notched its 10-millionth viewer. But climate change is, at the end of the day, a fight over what kinds of industries a government supports, and even the most captivating public performances struggle to influence energy policies in a country where oil and gas companies spend untold millions.
So Fonda, who was just diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, has found herself doling out money after all with the recent launch of the Jane Fonda PAC. The political action committee, which aims to counter the fossil fuel industry’s spending by boosting candidates who vow to challenge pipelines or new oil and gas drilling, has already made a slew of endorsements, including Karen Bass for Los Angeles mayor, St. Louis Alderwoman Megan Green, and Michigan state Senate hopeful Padma Kuppa.
I spent about 45 minutes speaking to Fonda, who was joined by a publicist, and Ariel Hayes the former national political director of the Sierra Club and who Fonda hired to run the PAC.
Fonda criticized much of the climate movement for its failure to prioritize local elections to obscure state bureaucracies and said wealth inequality was perhaps the biggest issue facing the country after global warming. Citing famed anti-consumerist writers like Naomi Klein and Greenpeace executive director Annie Leonard, Fonda seemed mostly convinced that resources needed to not only be redistributed but rationed more carefully.
I tried probing at some of the more nuanced questions of decarbonization. Interjecting at one point in the conversation, Hayes, who had been sitting off camera beside Fonda, dismissed hydrogen – a controversial zero-carbon fuel favored by industry – as a “false solution.” Fonda was unwavering in her opposition to nuclear energy, even as mounting disasters in California, including blackouts and water shortages that could spur demand for energy-intensive desalination projects, persuaded a majority of her home state’s legislators to support keeping the West Coast’s last seaside atomic plant open. Fonda appreciated, however, the value of producing more of the metals needed to make solar panels and batteries here in the U.S., and said mining companies could work in partnership with Native Americans.
The following interview was edited and condensed for clarity
You visited North Vietnam in 1972 to protest the U.S. war, held fundraisers for the Black Panthers, and backed up Indigenous activist Bernie Whitebear as he bargained a better deal for native peoples living on reservations. Google your name and abortion, and the first page results show you marching on the Supreme Court in 1989 and taking a front-line position again this year. Since 2019, you have been arrested repeatedly while protesting the government’s failure to act on climate change. Real quick, how many arrests are you up to now?
On climate? I think five.
Plus three, earlier in the ’70s.
So, what crucible forged your politics? And how did you come to focus on climate change?
Do you mean the beginning of my activism in the Vietnam War? When I lived in Paris and I was married to a Frenchman? Do you want to go back that far?
If you can summarize it, that would be great.
There were a lot of American military personnel who had fought in Vietnam and resisted the war and moved to Paris. They were looking for help from Americans who lived in Paris, and they found me. I befriended a group of them, there were about eight of them. They told me things that were happening in Vietnam and I didn’t believe it. They gave me a book to read by Jonathan Schell called “The Village of Ben Suc.” It changed my life. I left my husband and moved back here and joined the G.I. movement.
The G.I.’s opened my eyes to the reality of Vietnam. So when I got back here I found out there was a vibrant GI movement of active duty servicemen. I became a civilian supporter and I became very involved in Vietnam veterans against the war. I got arrested a bunch of times then.
Then I married Tom Hayden, and that was good because I didn’t want to be a loose cannon, and he was deeply involved in strategy and he taught me a lot. Together we did a lot, and when the war ended we focused on other things. We started the Campaign for Economic Democracy, which was a statewide organization.
When you go deep into any one thing – for me, it was the Vietnam War – it’s like an onion. And there’s racism. Oh, then imperialism. Then misogyny and patriarchy. All these things started coming to me. I became a feminist.
My friends Marlon Brando and Jean Seberg were working with the Black Panthers. I asked them what that was about. They said well you should meet them. So, I did. My work with the Panthers was mostly raising money to bail political prisoners out of jail.
I drove across the country going to Indian reservations. At the time when AIM, the American Indian Movement, was powerful and was into assimilation more than traditional spiritual, and cultural things. It was really interesting to me decades later to be at Standing Rock. It was a big deal then, arguing about whether they should assimilate or whether traditional dances, ceremonies and prayers were needed. I believe the latter now, and I saw that play out at Standing Rock.
It’s been since the ’70s that I’ve been involved with a number of different movements on the ground. It was really hard at the beginning, being a movie star. I could feel it. I’d be arrested with a bunch of Indigenous people. They’d be beaten and I wouldn’t. In an unusual way, for a white privileged person like me, it’s been very hands-on.
But in 2018, I started getting really depressed because I knew that the climate crisis was worsening and I didn’t think I was using my platform to the extent that I should. I started listening to what Greta Thunberg was saying and reading what she was writing. I read a book by Naomi Klein. I read the [U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report. And it was like a lightning bolt right into my belly. It was so clear. We have 12 years, we have to cut our fossil fuel use in half, and phase it out by mid-century. It was very clear. But the problem is a lot of the big green groups weren’t talking about fossil fuels. Greenpeace was.
So I called Greenpeace because Annie Leonard was a friend, and she’s a brilliant organizer and strategist. And I said I want to move to Washington, D.C., and do something that will get a lot of attention to do something to get people to start acting. She put together a conference call with Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben and others. That’s where the idea for Fire Drill Fridays came about. It centered on civil disobedience.
One thing I was very proud of is you never saw a lineup of white men. It is always young people and people of color. And the celebrities would introduce them. Which is how it should be. Most of the time, we’d introduce the frontline speakers. Black people, Indigenous people, young people. I learned so much. I tried to get Netflix to let me out of my contract for “Grace and Frankie” for the year, but Ted Sarandos is a good guy but he couldn’t do it. He’d already signed a contract. So, I lived in D.C. for a few months and then had to come back here.
Then COVID hit, and we took Fire Drill Fridays online, which we still are doing. We’ll have by this Friday our 10 millionth view. Which is very successful. Our goal is to reach people and bring them from being concerned to being active. And it’s worked.
You recently launched the Jane Fonda PAC. You told the 19th you’ll be “working closely with my team to endorse candidates up and down the ballot who are prioritizing ambitious climate policies and taking on the fossil fuel industry.” Are you anticipating that you’ll focus primarily on federal elections? Are there types of local elections you think have been ignored by the climate movement but require more attention?
In general, the climate movement hasn’t been super active in the electoral space for a lot of reasons. In the beginning, people thought if we just tell them the facts of what’s happening people are gonna rise up. That didn’t quite happen.
A lot of the green groups are also 501C3s [a tax designation that bars partisan activity], and some have fossil fuel investors on their boards. It’s also harder to focus on fossil fuels. But the analogy I’ve borrowed from Annie is to only talk about wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars and not deal with fossil fuels is like trying to bail out a boat without plugging the hole. We’re not gonna get where we need to be unless we stop any new fossil fuel development and begin to phase out what’s already there to zero by mid-century.
I just came from a press conference where I introduced the local candidates I’m supporting – city comptroller, board of supervisors, one person running for congress, city attorney, and state assembly. We are very very deliberately up and down the ballot.
There’s a lot of debate these days over what counts as a real climate solution or not. Are there certain policy red lines for you? Some progressive PACs have, for example, disqualified candidates who support technologies like carbon capture and sequestration, hydrogen or nuclear.
If a candidate supported those things and that was it, no. We would not endorse them. It has to be a little bit braver than that. They have to have taken a pledge to have accepted absolutely no fossil fuel money. That’s No. 1.
No. 2, they have to have taken a bold stance publicly against some fossil fuel project, a pipeline, and a fracking site.
[Fonda then turned the computer camera to Hayes who said, in the interest of making progress in states with larger fossil fuel industries than California, they would have more flexible criteria in Texas or New Mexico. “Which is not to say we’re giving candidates a pass,” Hayes said. “We’re putting races in the context of candidates who have to step up to a pipeline and to false solutions like hydrogen.”]
So is the goal to create a counterbalance to the fossil fuel PACs that have been so dominant in so many places?
Yes. They have a stranglehold over our elected officials. There have been quite a few bills on state levels here in California and elsewhere and on the federal level – a good bill, the original Build Back Better, that was killed because moderate Democrats are in bed with fossil fuels.
In Texas, a wonderful woman, Jessica Cisneros was running against Henry Cuellar, and four other moderate Democrats and [Rep.] Henry Cuellar persuaded Nancy Pelosi to take the provision out of the Build Back Better bill that called for ending fossil fuel subsidies. Taxpayers give $20 billion a year to fossil fuel industries. Really, it’s unconscionable. And she took it out. Those five people, including Henry Cuellar, they’re all Democrats.
Jessica Cisneros, whom we endorsed, lost by 850 votes. Will we ever be able to outspend the Koch brothers? No, never. But we do have celebrities, me, others, and friends of mine who will stand up and give support. And we have people power. What we want to do is support the candidates and unleash people’s power. So, there’s Fire Drill Friday, which is more grassroots, then there’s the electoral strategy, which is the Jane Fonda PAC.
I wanted to ask about nuclear energy. Your 1979 movie “The China Syndrome,” depicting the cover-up of a nuclear accident, famously came out just days before the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island. Putting aside the absurd conspiracy theories, the bizarre timing of the film is widely credited for playing some role in persuading the American public that nuclear energy was too dangerous to pursue. But virtually everywhere nuclear plants have shut down, and fossil fuels have replaced them. And now, with emissions soaring and a global energy crisis underway, you have California lawmakers voting just last night to keep Diablo Canyon, the state’s last atomic power plant, open at least until 2030. Do you support keeping the plant open? And do you, in hindsight, wish people took a different message from that movie on nuclear?
No, they took the right message. This is dangerous stuff. It is dangerous stuff. We’ve seen that in Japan, we’ve seen that in Russia. Not only is it dangerous, not only is Diablo Canyon right close to the earthquake fault but there’s the problem of water. In the case of Diablo Canyon, it’s marine water. It’s the ocean. It kills marine life around there. Nuclear plants use up so much water. Water is like gold now, we know that very well now in California.
I understand Gov. Gavin Newsom’s concerns about rolling blackouts and what it did to [former Gov.] Gray Davis. He’s got ambitions, I get that. But I wish all that money would go to alternatives, to renewables. I think that would make more difference and we could have maybe made a big enough splash in time to help with that.
If I had been governor, I would have been planning this for four years. Do you know what I mean? Put in place a plan so when a time like this happens, we’ve solved it. Don’t wait until the last minute and then throw it out to the legislature when they don’t have time to think about it.
I want to ask about renewables, too. There’s a lot in the Inflation Reduction Act, and a potential big boom coming in a lot of green energy industries. We may see a lot more manufacturing here, whether that’s more lithium refineries or more mining, which gets pushback for other reasons. Indigenous people are pushing back against lithium mining in Nevada and elsewhere. Where do you fall on that? Should we be doing more domestic production of these things? Do you think it should be done elsewhere? Or that recycling should be the main avenue for developing these resources?
Recycling? I didn’t know recycling could replace lithium.
Well, some people say we don’t need to mine as much lithium if we have the infrastructure to recycle batteries.
Certainly, let’s do that. Let’s reuse as much of that as we can. But I like the idea that we’re not going to be reliant on some other country or power to get what we need to make the batteries. I think mining here, but you have to do it in cooperation with tribal people.
Where the transition works, like mining for lithium works, is where the local people are listened to as part of the process. Germany may be doing things like considering nuclear but that’s a coal country and they are transitioning away from coal but with the labor unions at the table, so it works. That’s what we have to do more of. We have to celebrate what meager things we get, and hundreds of billions of dollars isn’t so meager for alternative energy. But there are no implementation guarantees. The utilities are not required to spend that money on alternatives.
If we’re going to mine, we have to do it with the local community and figure out a way where maybe nobody will be 100% happy but everyone will feel that they’re heard. No more riding roughshod. With frontline communities, the motto is nothing about us without us.
I have two more questions, one a little more philosophical than the other. Your PAC is a bet on influencing the current system, a pragmatic approach to change. Do you believe that our system of representative democracy in the U.S. will be able to deliver on a fully decarbonized America?
We have seven years. It’s what we have right now. We’re not going to be able to change our system of government between now and 2030 so we have to work with what we have and make it happen.
Then, we have to begin to understand where we are going wrong. Clearly, we’re going wrong. There would be no climate crisis if there was no racism. There would be no climate crisis if there was no misogyny. It’s a mindset that I think is encouraged by our economic system, and we need to take a good look at that. All of the experts, and I’m not one, say this will force us and, this will be an opportunity to restructure the way humanity lives on the planet. What we’re doing now is not sustainable. This isn’t something that’s a quick fix. Between now and 2030, we could cut fossil fuels in half, but then we have to do a whole lot of other things.
“In general the climate movement hasn’t been super active in the electoral pace for a lot of reasons. In the beginning, people thought if we just tell them the facts of what’s happening people are gonna rise up. That didn’t quite happen.”
The fact that after four years of warning Jackson, Mississippi, doesn’t have water – we’re not moving fast enough to build resiliency. There need to be huge changes, or we’re not going to make it.
I thought we might end where we started: Vietnam. I have been to Vietnam myself as a tourist, and very much loved it. While there, I was very impressed by how they told the story of the war there. How they see it as a triumph over a great power that tried to impose itself on a smaller country. With that in mind, should the U.S. use its might to help all the other countries decarbonize? Should the process of decarbonization remove us from the superpower status we’ve wielded?
We have to be an example. We are one of the leading causes in this country of the climate crisis. Individually, Americans have a larger carbon footprint than any other country. It’s very important, and we haven’t thus far been very good at it. But we have to share funding and technology with the Global South and all developing countries so they can prepare for and mitigate the climate crisis. That’s our role. If we fail at that, we don’t deserve to be a leadership nation.
Anything I haven’t asked that you want to share?
Every country that has equality, high levels of equality – income quality in particular – has less violence, more happy people, and less obesity. You’re going to Norway. You’ll see it. I was just in Italy, you see it there. You see people who are different because there is not as much inequality. We are at the top of the inequality pyramid. That is not sustainable. So let’s cut our emissions – and then cut inequality.