There are few films more environmentally infused than the highest grossing one in history, “Avatar” — in which a highly militarized mining company seeks to exploit the resources of the rich forest world of Pandora. But less known is how the film’s director, James Cameron, has also used some of the money made from “Avatar” to champion an array of green causes, even as he’s also using clean energy to power the film’s three planned sequels.
“We put in a 1 megawatt solar array on the roof of the soundstages where we’re doing the ‘Avatar’ sequels, so we’ll be net energy neutral there,” Cameron told The Washington Post recently. “We’ll sell back to the grid and it will balance back over the time when we’re working and when we’re not working.”
It’s just one of the many green initiatives the director has undertaken. Heck, he even designed his own solar sunflowers, and they’re pretty cool looking.
(He’s also a noted underwater explorer: In 2012 Cameron undertook a historic dive 35,787 feet deep into the Mariana Trench.)
Cameron spoke Wednesday morning in Washington at Greenbuild, a major conference on green buildings sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council. Projected population growth means there will be massive construction in new cities around the world, Cameron told The Post. “If all those buildings are constructed the way we’ve traditionally constructed buildings it will be an enormous spike in greenhouse gas emissions,” he adds.
But one of his most unique recent environmental causes has focused on what we eat — meat and dairy, particularly — and how it relates to climate change. This topic has long been a kind of elephant in the room of environmental discussions – and now Cameron is pointing straight at the elephant.
“When you add it all up, it comes up to about 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas comes from the animal agriculture sector,” Cameron says. “That’s bigger than all transportation combined.”
Granted, the gases aren’t just carbon dioxide — the leading, long-lived atmospheric greenhouse gas. They also include methane, which is harder hitting but dissipates much faster — and in this context chiefly comes from so-called “enteric fermentation” (digestion and subsequent burps) in cows and other livestock — and nitrous oxide, emitted by fertilizers and manure. The 14.5 percent figure was affirmed by Chatham House, a London-based think tank, which also calculated that livestock drives 39 percent of human-caused global methane emissions and 65 percent of human induced nitrous oxide emissions.
You can’t fix global warming without fixing carbon dioxide — it has a longer atmospheric residence time than these other gases, and is the dominant greenhouse gas in general. But Cameron observes that because agriculture is so closely tied to deforestation — in many places around the globe, forests are being cleared for cattle and other agricultural activities — it’s also in effect a major source of CO2 to the atmosphere.
Moreover, given global goals to keep global warming between 2 degrees Celsius, it has often been observed that taking action on non-CO2 gases with greater immediate warming consequences, like methane, can buy us some time.
There have been proposed techno-fixes to the problem of agricultural emissions — including the intriguing idea of changing the chemistry going on in cows’ rumens (one chamber of their stomachs) by feeding them a “methane inhibitor” powder, which has been proved in published research to work. DSM, the Dutch life-sciences company, is developing this product.
But there’s also changing what we consume and, in effect, driving market-based changes on a global scale. On the latter front, Cameron and his wife, Suzy Amis Cameron, founded the Food Choice Taskforce, seeking to change our diets, and thereby, lessen climate change and other environmental impacts. “It’s a viable choice, it’s essentially a thermostat that’s being handed to us that we can use to turn down climate change,” Cameron says.
The group is supported in part by the private Avatar Alliance Foundation, which Cameron endowed with some of the film’s proceeds. The foundation has also supported Chatham House’s research on agriculture and the environment.
According to Chatham House, international negotiations to address climate change naturally target the energy and transportation sectors, and the forest and land use sector — but for a complex set of reasons, they have just as traditionally overlooked agriculture. The report contended that “dietary change is essential if global warming is not to exceed two degrees Celsius – the stated objective of the international community.”
“I think they’re basically unachievable goals if we don’t embrace the way we eat as well as part of it. But nobody’s talking about it,” says Cameron.
Granted, there are signs of momentum lately. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, for instance, recently made major waves when it included environmental concerns to its assessment of our diets. “Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use,” the report noted, compared with more plant-based diets. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer recently declared processed meats a carcinogen.
When it comes to the U.S. dietary guidelines committee — a group of scientists who provide advice, but do not set official policy, it seems a particularly auspicious sign. “For the first time, the issue that I’ve been screaming about has been codified as advice to the government,” says Cameron.
More general, Cameron — who is just as much a wonk about climate change and ocean science as one presumes that he is about the technical aspects of filmmaking — thinks the tide is turning.
“It feels like climate denialism is starting to look like it’s really on the wrong side of history for a greater majority every day,” says Cameron. “Momentum is building in a great direction.”
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