Chris Hayes: Fix climate change now

Exclusive interview: The MSNBC star on his new documentary, which argues climate change policy is "get-right-able."

By Lindsay Abrams
Published August 16, 2013 2:36PM (EDT)
Chris Hayes                  (AP/Virginia Sherwood)
Chris Hayes (AP/Virginia Sherwood)

Even among left-leaning pundits, MSNBC correspondent Chris Hayes stands out for his interest in climate change, first on his Sunday show, and now on the weeknights' "All In." Most of his audience doesn't need to be convinced that global warming is a real and pressing problem, but Hayes underscores its urgency with continual coverage of the science and policy driving the debate.

Taking the conversation a step further, tonight MSNBC will air "The Politics of Power," Hayes' new documentary providing "a comprehensive breakdown of the destructive and unalterable path we’re headed down, and how politicians and large corporations have politicized the issue." But its tone, he promises, isn't unrelenting pessimism; in addition to covering the current state of affairs, he dedicates a fair amount of time to ways things are starting to change for the better.

Hayes hopped on the phone with Salon to preview the many issues he's squeezed into the hour-long special. This interview has been edited for clarity.

“The Politics of Power” premieres this weekend -- can you tell us a little bit about what to expect?

In some ways it’s an attempt to reset the contours of where we are right now: Where we are currently with the science, where we are in terms of what effects we are seeing as the front edge of the climate crisis crosses from the future into the present, what the obstacles to action are and what actually is moving. There is a lot that’s moving -- both on the policy level, in terms of the president and the EPA, as well as on the grass-roots level and technologically.

We talk a lot about solutions, and they don’t just exist in the abstract. Germany, for example, has implemented some policies that have revolutionized their reliance on fossil fuel. We talk about precedence in terms of acid rain and ozone where we had really effective, collective binding treaties that solved an environmental problem. We also talk about some of the more exciting stuff that’s happening in the renewable space, particularly solar.

What else are you excited to show us?

There’s some great footage of what the shale gas explosion in North Dakota looks like, which is kind of an incredible story. There’s also a really interesting conversation with this guy Jigar Shaw, who runs a renewable investment fund. He’s really persuasive that renewables, even independent of policy, are moving incredibly quickly for cost effectiveness.

What have you discovered about the political pressure that’s coming from the fossil fuel industry?

Well, it’s been incredibly powerful for a long time. It’s growing in strength partly because of the amazing fracking revolution that has put a lot more money into the pockets of the fossil fuel industry. They only have more money to use on lobbying and politicians than ever before, arguably.

There are really two obstacles with the fossil fuel industry. There are the obstacles of interest and the obstacles of ideology -- and that's the kind of base of the conservative party. The two are obviously linked and related, but those are the two distinct ones we face right now.

Your coverage begins with the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Almost a year later, have we learned anything from that?

I think the one thing we are seeing is that, if you look at polling, people are aware that the climate is changing, that the climate is changing the weather and that we are at the front end of something new and distinct. If you ask people if we’re seeing more extreme weather events more often, they say yes.

Bill McKibben makes the argument to me that, basically, you have to worry less about persuading people, because what’s going to happen is the climate is going to do that for you. That's kind of grim, but is almost certainly the thing that we need to kick us into gear.

What’s the biggest thing that’s currently going unacknowledged when it comes to climate policy?

The big elephant in the room is that we are going to have to leave about four-fifths of the world’s proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground. The value of that is estimated to be as high as $20 trillion, and it’s hard to come up with a precedent of successful political movements that have managed to, essentially, make national corporations and nations walk away from $20 trillion. That is the big unanswered question: Can we do that?

No spoilers, but do you think there is enough that can be done, to give us hope going forward?

Yes, absolutely. I think in some ways it’s sort of a hopeful documentary. The conversations I have are around the fact that there’s a lot of reason to think that it actually is “get-right-able.” If the interests can be successfully combated, the solutions, from a technical perspective, are not actually that difficult.

So it’s not hopeless.

It is not hopeless.

I say so only because there are reports claiming that it could be too late to reverse a lot of the effects that are already happening.

I think the thing about that is, it is too late to stop warming altogether, obviously. We’ve already seen about a degree Celsius warming. But what I think that completely loses sight of, which is incredibly important, is that there’s a huge difference between two degrees or four degrees or six degrees. It’s not like, “Oh, well, it’s hopeless, so just keep going on.”

Do you anticipate the documentary spurring people into action to really start combating this?

I think the key thing here is to move people to think about this at the front of mind, particularly MSNBC’s audience. I think for most of the people that watch the network, it’s not a question of being persuaded that climate change exists or that it’s a problem. When we think about the things we’re passionate about, it’s about moving climate change up in that hierarchy.

"The Politics of Power" airs Friday night at 8 p.m. ET. Watch the trailer here:

Lindsay Abrams

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Chris Hayes Climate Change Environmentalism Msnbc Renewable Energy