Lexus drives global warming debate

Carmaker's approach pits celebs vs. skeptics

Hollywood for years has taken a leading role in “raising awareness” of global warming, but lately the message from environmental activists has given way to another sentiment: frustration.

With a comprehensive climate bill stalled in the Senate, there was ample reason for dismay and disappointment.

On the Huffington Post, for instance, Robert Redford chided GOP lawmakers and Democratic moderates, and criticized President Obama, noting that while he has done “more than any other president to advance clean energy,” he never “seemed to roll up his sleeves, bring lawmakers to the table, and work to rally the American public behind it.”

“The inconvenient truth now is that the environmental movement is deeply fractured,” says Trevor Neilson, president of Global Philanthropy Group, which advises celebrity clients on activism and giving.

“We had a lot of clients following (the climate bill), but there was a messaging problem. What was being done wasn’t clear. … They have to have a coherent message that accompanies a tough bill, not a confused message that accompanies a watered-down bill.”

It was perhaps indicative of what has happened to the state of celebrity eco-activism that one of the bigger events tied to the environment in recent weeks was thrown by Lexus on July 27 in Gotham to promote its new luxury hybrid. But it was far from the explicit red-carpet appeal to green sensibilities.

Called the Darker Side of Green, the event was the latest in the series of debates the automaker has sponsored that pit a global-warming true believer against a skeptic, in this case Rolling Stone executive editor Eric Bates against Lord Christopher Monckton, a former policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher. Tracy Morgan was the moderator. The events in Miami, New York and Los Angeles have drawn an array of eco-friendly celebrities, including Ashton Kutcher, Adrien Brody, Zach Braff, Kevin Bacon, Kristen Bell and Kyra Sedgwick.

It wasn’t too long ago that many in Hollywood believed, in the wake of “An Inconvenient Truth,” that the debate was settled. Because the scientific consensus is that man-made climate change is real, there is no reason to debate the deniers. Ewan McGregor, who was among the celebrities at the latest event, told a news crew that he thought it would be “fun” to watch the debate. “In 2010, I thought it was quite interesting that there even is one,” he added.

But “climategate” triggered a new round of rancor: The leaked e-mails from one of the world’s leading climate research centers in Britain — which discussed data and other matters related to research — were taken as proof by skeptics that the science behind global warming had been exaggerated. But a British House of Commons committee investigation found that nothing in the e-mails changed the consensus that “global warming is happening and that it is induced by human activity.”

The idea for the Lexus debates comes from Patrick Courrielche and his marketing firm Inform Ventures, which was hired by the automaker. He wrote about “climategate” extensively for conservative media entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart’s BigJournalism sites, but he says that “what my position on it is personally I have tried not to infuse in the project,” adding that the point of the Lexus debates has been to “bring in both sides of the argument, to find common ground.”

“The debate has become too infused with politics,” he says.

A year ago, he says, “most people would think it was crazy” that there would be no climate bill with a Democratic president and congressional majorities and the worst oil spill in the country’s history.

“In some way, shape or form, there needs to be a different discussion,” Courrielche says.

The Lexus debates are hardly wonkish exercises. One moderated by Sarah Silverman in March was tinged with humor, and as an environmental advocate herself, she shot questions like, “Why do you hate polar bears?” at the skeptic, docmaker Phelim McAleer.

There also was a mention of the “South Park” image of a hybrid driver: smug. Courrielche says that the point of the event was to get beyond that, to something more edgy that would have greater appeal.

“At the end of the day, we are trying to get people into hybrid vehicles,” Courrielche says. “We are taking a different approach. You can’t argue with taking a different approach.”

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