Sean Penn Packs for Paris

Bloomberg’s Eric Roston and I collared eight high-profile attendees of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, aka COP21, as they headed to France for the meeting. What, we wanted to know, did they hope to do there? Many felt a deeper commitment to going because of a recent, politically motivated mass murder in a nightclub. Thanks to Aeriel Brown and a small corps of resourceful photographers, we got a great set of images of them, too.

In the end, the Paris COP yielded a significant, global agreement to reduce future greenhouse gas pollution, measures to help millions adapt to rising seas, drought, and heat waves, and pledges of financial support for especially vulnerable regions. It has since been abandoned by President Trump and the United States. The interviews Eric and I did were edited to be quick takes—small talk in the Departures lounge. Below is a slightly fuller transcript of my chat with the actor who will forever be Jeff Spicoli in a Señor Lopez to me.

What’s on your Paris agenda?
During the general assembly week, [French] President Hollande, the interior minister and minister of environment in Haiti, myself, and Sean Parker, representing private investment, will advance on our pledge agreement for a pretty robust reforestation project in Haiti.

Did the attacks make you reconsider going?
My first thought was to go to Paris to talk to our partners, and to see if there were any tonal changes we needed to make, because we planned our event as a celebration. So I went this week. And Paris is about the safest place on the planet; it’s a fortress at this point. And we determined that our [event] would be done in the spirit of those that were attacked. They were very life loving, very engaged young people, and so the intention is to go forward as planned. For solidarity.

Say you run into a climate denier at a bar. What do you say to them?
Well, I don’t believe there are climate skeptics. I think there are people who indulge in a culture of what can be reduced to Fox Network thinking. That has nothing to do with the politics that apply to the protection of quality of life in any sense. It’s like talking to a member of a cult. I’m not a deprogrammer, so I think what I’d do is I turn away, and order another vodka tonic.

Favorite movie with an ecological theme?
Koyaanisqatsi. Also, I’m really interested in everything that my friend [Leonardo] DiCaprio is doing in this world. His recent picture on the jungle gorillas [Virunga] was extraordinary. As it becomes more and more a part of our lives, and particularly our kids lives, I think we’re going to see a lot of inspired movies of all kinds from documentaries to feature films that are going to be carrying the torch of where we need to go.

Have you witnessed some effects of climate change first-hand?
I can tell you it’s November and I went swimming without a wetsuit the other day. I can tell you that I was in a T-shirt in Washington D.C., and New York, and Paris this month. And I had to take a shower before going out for dinner because I had sweat in the afternoon. And I can tell you that a few years ago, I’m going to say about seven, my son and I went to the Jenner Glacier in Alaska to go ice climbing. And as we approached we saw the five miles of recession of the glacier as we came in by helicopter, which is marked by the equivalent of a water stain, where the glacier had been, two years earlier.

Twelve years ago I took my family down the Colorado River where one was able to go down the length of it to the body of Lake Mead. That’s no longer possible as Lake Mead itself dropped and the sediment back flow created an impassable rapid that will vaporize you. You have to pull out almost 20 miles before you get to do Lake Mead. This is stuff that’s happening in real and rapid time.

Recently, you said that when it comes to climate, we’ve got to be optimistic because we don’t really have any other choice. Where does your optimism come from?
What I count on are two things: the resilience of the earth, even against the science that might tell us in many ways it’s too late. And the other is a cultural shift: I have a 22 and a 24 year old, so I find myself in the company of they and their friends quite a bit. And when I see them very diligently using the recycle bins or choosing a Prius over a Cadillac—and I see a lot of that starting to happen in our culture and in others, and certainly in Western Europe—you are seeing this shift in young people that [my generation] never occupied.

Where the skepticism is–or the cynicism–is the people who are baffling in their unwill to recognize the human footprint on climate change. Our children and grandchildren will unequivocally know and see the permanent record that is stored on this thing called the Internet of the criminal and negligent politicized protest being registered at this time. Eventually, people will be voluntarily standing up and saying, “There are witches in Salem!” But while the deniers will get their comeuppance, the climate summit is to make sure that the rest of us don’t get our comeuppance by burying a lie, and losing water and glaciers.

Photo credit: Jeremy Liebman for Bloomberg Businessweek