It may be tempting to dismiss the Hollywood heavyweights who have arrived in Paris for the U.N.’s mammoth 11-day climate conference, COP 21 (Alec Baldwin, Leonardo DiCaprio and Sean Penn among them), as latching on to an issue that has gained huge traction globally.
Robert Redford is a whole other matter.
Redford, who turns 80 next year, has been an ardent environmentalist for most of his life, ever since his stratospheric career took off with the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He has fought against strip developers and coal companies, lobbied Congress, turned his Sundance Ranch in Utah into a place to plan action, and since 1975, has served as trustee for the New York-based organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council, on whose board DiCaprio now also sits.
After decades of fighting for the cause, Redford feels new energy, sensing that environmental activism might finally have found its moment. In Paris, he has appeared at a conference of mayors at City Hall on Friday, and on Sunday addressed a gathering of indigenous leaders at the U.N.’s cultural agency Unesco. In between, Redford sat down in his hotel with TIME’s Vivienne Walt, to talk about how to rein in greenhouse gases, why Pope Francis is so crucial, how Paris once changed his life, and how making movies was not his first career choice.
Q. You’ve been in this environmental movement for a very long time. There was a time not that long ago when environmental activists were treated like kooks. What’s changed?
A: Well I experienced that. I started in 1969, 1970 with the Environmental Protection Act. But the powers that be had too much power at that time, so they could drown you out. Oil, gas, coal companies had all the power because they had all the money behind them, and all the Congress behind them. You felt like you were just a voice in the wilderness. I thought if you just keep at it and if you have passion about this and you have perseverance then that is what it is going to take. Because eventually things are going to start happening. I’m sorry it has taken so long. But I feel that moment has arrived, here in Paris.
Q: There seemed to be years in which the environmental movement faded away and now has come back in strength.
A: I sense that there is a rhythm. It came on strong in the late ’60s and early ’70s when young people were looking for change. A lot of that energy of young people was, ‘well what can we work on?’ But it wasn’t enough. Then it faded away. And now it’s coming back because the consequences are clear, the evidence has landed in people’s back yards. Before people would say it is the Doomsday prophecy, you are trying to scare us. But we are beyond that now, because it’s clear.
Q: You were at Paris City Hall with mayors from around the world. Why such a big focus on mayors? Is it because things are so difficult in Congress that you need to focus on local politics?
A: Congress has become rather hopeless in terms of getting anything accomplished. Over the years I tried to put whatever voice I could on this but I went to the wrong place. I went to the Congress. I lobbied in the Senate. I lobbied in the House [of Representatives]. And it wasn’t going anywhere. I was ready to give up when I realized, wait a minute. How about mayors? Why don’t we bring mayors to Sundance and have a conference? So 10 years ago I invited mayors from all over the U.S. to come and discuss climate change. When I saw the effect mayors had I felt that is where I should put my time.
But the game-changing moment belonged to the Pope. He put it above politics. He said, this is not a political issue. It is a moral issue. When he did that, that brought him very close to the people. He went to the people. he went above. At that moment he pushed the politicians aside, and allowed the people to have a direct link to some higher voice, which was his. And therefore I consider that a game changer.
Q: So are you saying you need to move on without Washington, rather than wait for a change in political sentiment in Washington?
A: You have to move on without it because if you wait for that you will die and they will still be talking.
I guess the optimistic thing is that those people in Congress who are climate deniers, I think their time has run out. From my experience in my country, America over and over again takes itself right to the brink, it puts one foot over but it never goes over. It wakes up at the last minute and says woah, and then pulls back because suddenly they get reasonable.
Q: In the political noise in the U.S. where does climate change rank? You have a lot of other issues obviously. But is climate change becoming one of those touchstone issues?
A: It has not been but I think it will be. People are finally able to look around and say, ‘I can see the drought, I can see the rising sea levels, I can see the crops dying. Okay, now I get it.’ It is finally beginning to sink in that there has been a lot of damage.
Until now I think there was something that made us not pay attention to climate change. Something that was up there. There was a saying when we were trying to pay attention to the environment that people used this phrase NIMBY — not in my back yard. People were saying, ‘I don’t care, it is not in my back yard.’ But now it’s in everyone’s back yard.
Q: There has been talk within the oil and gas industry, and other sectors, which are starting to be worried about climate change:
A: The ones that are most threatened are going to raise their voices the loudest because they see that their time is running out. They don’t want to go quietly into the night because of all that money that has been made in their industries. A huge amount of money. And since money really runs the show, I think they see a threat to their investments. I think they are genuinely worried.
Q: There has also been a lot of talk at COP 21 about divestment from fossil fuels and possible stranded assets—fossil fuels that cannot be exploited. How important do you think that is?
A : I think divestment is great. But it is just one step. There are many steps that have to be taken. I never had to worry about divestment because I never invested. So I didn’t have to worry about that one.
Q: Are you worried what happens with the environmental campaign if a Republican wins the presidential campaign?
A: Ah, you talk about the Apocalypse. The hope is that you would not have any of the candidates we see debating show up. I have more faith in the American people. Right now people are not paying enough attention. I think when they do I don’t think those will survive.
Q: You live in a particularly beautiful part of the U.S. How have you seen the environment change around you?
A: I have two properties: Sundance, then the [Sundance Film] festival in Park City, Utah. When I first started the festival [in 1978] there were maybe 30 films and 150 people wandering by. I’m standing outside the theater like some guy at a strip joint saying, ‘why don’t you come in?’ Suddenly there are 70,000 people coming. And now suddenly we have to start worrying about it growing too big.
The reason we had the festival in Park City is that I don’t want the kind of impact where Sundance is. Sundance started with two acres back in 1963 that I bought from a sheepherder for $500. What has happened, I could see development starting to descend on the state of Utah. I thought I had better acquire more land to protect it. I thought that would probably be my legacy, to protect land. I started to acquire more and more acres. I bought the sheepherder out. So right now we have become an oasis. We have a total of almost 5,000 acres. But once you leave Sundance suddenly you run into bulldozers and concrete and cranes, and all that heritage that the Mormon culture used to be so proud of is turned into out of control develpoment.
Q: How do you feel being in Paris, right after the attacks?
A: I didn’t want the attacks to affect me. I don’t believe you should be led by fear. The best way to respond to what happened is to say we’re not going to be intimated. I’m glad I’m here.
When I was a kid I was not a good student. I went to the University of Colarado, my grades were poor. I was asked to leave after a year. What I really wanted to do was to be an artist. I always wanted to go to Paris because I’d read about the painters going back to the 1920s, to Modigliani and Picasso. I saved up enough money to last me for a year in Paris.
Between 18 and 19 years old [in the 1950s] I came to Paris. I studied art. And that experience really did change my life. I was living hand to mouth. I walked everywhere. I thought, this city is incredible but you really have to experience it by walking it. It was a tough time politically because America was not in a favored place in that time because of something that had happened in the Suez Canal. I had no clue. I was not involved in politics at all. I had no clue at all. That is where I began to look at America from outside rather than inside, to draw conclusions about what was great about America, and also what was maybe not so great.
I came back years later [in 2010] and was given the Legion D’Honneur [France’s knighthood]. I thought wow, is this weird. When I think about my early time here, struggling and walking everywhere, I thought, life is weird. It sure felt good to have that arc.