'Avatar' director takes eco message beyond multiplex

James Cameron trekked to Capitol Hill last week for a series of events and meetings tied to the environment. But after speaking to lawmakers, the sense he came away with was that an energy and climate bill “will be a nonstarter if even it includes the word ‘climate change’ or ‘sustainability.’”

It was a sobering reminder that, despite the buildup to Earth Day, Washington is still wary of action on global warming.

“If we can’t even talk about the problem, what are we going to do about it?” Cameron asked, rhetorically, in an interview with Variety earlier this week.

Over the next few days, Cameron will be on somewhat of a blitz to try to make sure that the message of “Avatar” is magnified beyond the multiplex. As much as the movie may have triggered an emotional response, and maybe even a call to action, it doesn’t mean that people will actually take action, or even know what to do next.

On Thursday, Cameron will take part in a tree planting ceremony on the Fox lot, the kickoff of the pic’s homevideo release and a campaign to plant 1 million trees around the globe; on Saturday, he will speak at the annual meeting of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues; and on Sunday he is scheduled to speak at the Climate Rally on the National Mall in Washington.

Cameron expected to be on vacation by now, but the movie’s success inspired a “massive inpouring of letters and e-mails” from environmental groups and other orgs asking for help, in the form of fund-raising or speaking engagements or simple name association.

Among them have been groups seeking to stop a dam project that the Brazilian government plans on the Xingu River in the Amazon. He’s been there twice since the movie opened to meet with indigenous tribes who will be relocated from the river’s banks if the project is built, and Cameron said it’s possible he’ll make a documentary about it all — in 3-D, of course.

It’s a bit ironic that “Avatar,” with its underlying theme of “sustainability,” to use the term, became the highest grossing movie of all time even while recent polls show Americans have a declining belief that global warming is manmade, or even that it exists at all.

Cameron cited the statistics himself: In 2008, half of Americans thought climate change was real and caused by humans, now it is at one- third. “I think emotionally, they know the truth, but intellectually, they are in denial,” he said.

Cameron said that the perception, “fostered by many on the right,” is that there cannot be an economic recovery and climate action at the same time. He blames a “very well funded and organized denial machine,” backed by oil companies and other fossil fuel industries, to try discredit the science community’s consensus.

He hasn’t been shy about confrontation. Last month, at a junket for the “Avatar” homevideo release, he said, “Anybody that is a global warming denier at this point has got their head so deeply up their ass I’m not sure they could hear me.” He called Glenn Beck a “f—ing asshole,” and offered to debate him.

“I only regret that I used language that I wouldn’t want my kids to hear,” Cameron said this week. “But the sentiment remains.”

Moreover, the offer to debate Glenn Beck still stands, he said. On his show, Beck did not accept but called “Avatar” a “Smurf-murdering movie.”

The hope on Cameron’s part is that the attention that “Avatar” brings can counter the rhetoric from the right, in a way that a traditional documentary cannot.

But the question is whether it will be enough to change perceptions that there’s a powerful link between the environment and the economy. He believes that the public recognizes the moral need to protect nature, but then there’s a disconnect.

“There’s a divide between what we believe and action,” he said, contrasting that with what is happening in other countries, like China, which is becoming the leader in renewable energy production of such products as solar panels.

He’s not sure what he will say on the National Mall — but he knows what he won’t say. “I’m not going to tell them to turn the lights off, or to remember to recycle,” he said. “They already know that.”

The problem right now is that the climate crisis demands a large- scale, global response, as dealing with it piecemeal will be “like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Last week, he met briefly with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), as well as EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, offering “anything I can do to help.”

There’s one person Cameron is not so sure about swaying: Rupert Murdoch. “I don’t know how fruitful that would be to talk about this area,” Cameron said. The conservative News Corp. chieftan is obviously pleased with the results of “Avatar,” but he’s also the boss of the man who put Beck on Fox News. When it comes to climate change and the politics surrounding it, “it’s kind of a Switzerland area.”

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