Greenpeace USA and Jane Fonda pressure Gov. Gavin Newsom to block fossil fuel extraction permits and remove oil and gas production from residential areas

By Joe Piasecki

Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard will risk arrest during this week’s climate change demonstration
Photo by Erin Lubin / Greenpeace

Fifty years after bombshell actress Jane Fonda’s anti-Vietnam War activism made her an icon of resistance movements, Fonda is once again making headlines — now in her eighties — as a leading celebrity voice in the movement to combat climate change.

Last year Fonda spent six months in Washington D.C. leading Fire Drill Fridays protests at the Capitol, the name referring to teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg’s widely publicized remarks that “our house is on fire.” Those demonstrations attracted global attention for two reasons: Fonda routinely subjected herself to being arrested as an act of civil disobedience, and she brought plenty of her celebrity friends along for the ride, including actor Joaquin Phoenix and Fonda’s “Grace & Frankie” co-stars Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston.

Working with Greenpeace USA, Fonda moves her Fire Drill Fridays protests to Los Angeles City Hall this Friday — specifically hoping to pressure Gov. Gavin Newsom into restricting production of fossil fuels in California, says Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard.

THE ARGONAUT: What do you hope to accomplish by staging a Fire Drill Fridays protest in Los Angeles?

ANNIE LEONARD: I’ve been a climate activist for decades. One of the things that’s been really frustrating is that we have all the science, we have technological innovations, we have economic arguments — we’ve had everything we need to compel change except one thing, which was a massive public movement across this country, demanding it; engaged citizens really pressuring our elected leaders to lead. Fire Drill Fridays is a huge contribution to creating that.

When we started Fire Drill Fridays last fall in D.C., Jane had been reading about the Green New Deal and listening to some of the really inspiring youth activists who are calling on us to act like our house is on fire. She realized she had not been acting like her house is on fire, but the situation really is that dire. … For four months she moved to D.C. to become a full-time climate activist, and I’m thrilled about the amount of energy this project has unleashed. We’re going to keep going because if enough people get active, we can build the people power we need to force our leaders to lead.

How will the L.A. event compare to the D.C. events, which are most famous for Jane Fonda being arrested?

Actress and activist Jane Fonda spent six months leading Fire Drill Fridays protests in Washington D.C., including acts of civil disobedience that led to multiple arrests
Photo by Ted Eytan

We’re using the same model: engage a number of celebrities, which drives the public spotlight, and then use that platform to elevate the voices of those working the most on the issues. We’ve had scientists, activists and we really prioritize voices that are often excluded from the mainstream of climate discourse. We prioritize women, people of color, indigenous people — people who live on the frontlines of climate impacts but are often sidelined in conversations about that.

We have a number of speakers from the community around L.A. who are living with oil and gas in their communities. … California is one of the only states that produces oil and gas but doesn’t have a setback [law], so people have drilling and wells in their front yards, in playgrounds. One of the things we’re calling for is a 2,500-foot health and safety buffer between oil and gas operations and where people live.

There will be a civil disobedience, but Jane will not be participating in the civil disobedience [aspect of this demonstration] because of the lingering implications of her repeated arrests in D.C. She’s required not to participate in civil disobedience for 90 days. … But that’s OK, because there are lots of other people who will do it, and there are lots of other roles in the movement. … She has a bunch of other people to pass the baton to. Others, including myself, will be engaging in civil disobedience.

Are you able to describe what that will be?

I can’t give details, but I will tell you that we are always peaceful. Greenpeace was founded with an act of civil disobedience. … Throughout history we have used civil disobedience to force all kinds of positive change, as have immigrant rights activists, civil rights activists and so many others. But it’s important to note that we’re not starting this conversation with an act of civil disobedience. For 30 years we have exhausted the polite methods that democracy offers us. We have presented the science. We have gathered petitions. We have testified in front of Congress, made documentaries, issued reports. We have done everything one is supposed to do in a democracy, but our leaders are refusing to lead as our climate is approaching an incredibly dangerous tipping point. The choice to do civil disobedience was in many ways forced on us because nothing else is working. We’re at a point where we can politely perish or we can scale up our disruption and force our leaders to lead.

Does civil disobedience mean the same thing when you’re in a more progressive community on climate issues versus the current administration in Washington D.C.?

In California, public sentiment is very much in support of taking strong climate action. Sadly, [former Gov.] Jerry Brown was an excellent climate leader at talking about it, but not an excellent leader at actually doing something about it. There’s a huge gap between his rhetoric and the reality. There were 22,000 new oil and gas permits under his administration. Nobody would know that, right?

When [Gov. Gavin] Newsom came in, our campaign approached him. … He has begun to take some small steps and seems much more collaborative than Jerry Brown. So we’re very hopeful, but he hasn’t done what’s needed yet.

What’s that?

In terms of fossil fuels, two things have to happen. We have to use less of them by promoting renewable energy. Wind, solar, conservation, electric vehicles, energy efficiency — all those things can help us use less fossil fuels, and California has been fabulous on that front as a leader. Where California has dropped the ball is you also have to produce less. You have to stop pulling fossil fuels out of the ground. … Scientists say that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves are going to have to stay in the ground if we’re going to avoid the worst-case climate change scenarios, but California is continuing to expand its oil and gas operations. … If you reduce demand for fossil fuels but you don’t reduce production of it, these extra fossil fuels end up being exported, and that cancels out the benefits of reducing demand. It’s like a pair of scissors — you need both sides for it to work.

Our demand of Gov. Gavin Newsom is, No. 1, stop new fossil fuel extractions. No more permits, no more pipelines, no more investments. Stop expanding the problem so we can buy time to solve it. That’s not happening yet, and that’s really what climate leadership is today: Stop making it worse.

So this is about forcing Newsom to live up to his words?

Absolutely. I believe Gavin Newsom cares, and this is his opportunity to be a real climate leader. This is his opportunity to be a hero. He will get pushback from Big Oil for sure, so what we need to do is surround him with the support it takes to buffer him so that he can be the climate leader the country and the world needs.

This week’s Fire Drill Friday happens Feb. 7 from 11 a.m. to noon on the Main Street side of Los Angeles City Hall (200 N. Spring St., Downtown Los Angeles). Visit janefonda.com/events for more information.

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