Global warming, meet your new adversary

A film turns a Tampa woman into an activist.

Published January 22, 2007

TAMPA - To help her presentation on global warming, Roberta Fernandez flashes a map of Florida.

It shows the southern half of the state underwater, including Tampa Bay. "If Greenland melts the sea will rise 20 feet," says Fernandez, who calls herself a Climate Messenger.

There are gasps in the audience of smart, but mostly uninformed staffers at a local mortgage and real estate firm who have given up their lunch hour to hear her message.

Seven months ago she was just like them. But that was before she saw An Inconvenient Truth, former Vice President Al Gore's hit climate change documentary.

"I was astounded. I knew about global warming, but not in that way," said Fernandez, 48, who lives in Tampa and owns a Montessori school.

After she came home she found the film's Web site and learned that Gore was looking to personally train 1,000 "Climate Change Messengers" to spread the word on global warming. She signed up.

In her application she explained that as the owner of a school she felt responsible to be a model to children. "They were looking for people with passion who weren't afraid of standing up in front of people," she said.

She had considered becoming a volunteer for heart disease or breast cancer. "But I realized after the movie that no other cause mattered if we didn't have an inhabitable place to live."

In September she attended the first two-day training session for 50 volunteers at a downtown Nashville hotel. Not satisfied with that, she volunteered to be a mentor for future trainees. She has been back to Nashville twice, including three back-to-back training sessions earlier this month.

Trainees, who must pay their own airfare and hotel, come away from the sessions armed with materials to go forth and spread the gospel on global warming. They also sign a commitment to give 10 presentations of Gore's slide show on climate change, which is the basis for An Inconvenient Truth.

At the sessions Gore patiently goes through his now famous slides, explaining the science behind each one and the sources for the information he uses, as well as taking questions.

"All the trainees are very surprised how much time he spends with them," Fernandez said.

The idea for training the messengers was born from interviews Gore gave after An Inconvenient Truth was released in May. Gore found himself being asked repeatedly what he planned to do next. So he formed the Climate Project and tasked it with building a curriculum and Web site to attract trainees.

"It all happened very fast," said the Climate Project's director, Jenny Clad, an attorney who is married to Gore's longtime friend and chief of staff, Roy Neel. "There was no model for this. It was all invented as we went along."

Rather than seek publicity the organizers decided to fly under the radar, fearing that if word got out too widely they might be inundated with applications. Even without publicity they were overwhelmed by requests.

"We didn't want to have to turn all those people down," said Clad.

In picking the successful applicants, organizers tried to select as broad a range of people and professions as possible, covering all 50 states, with a handful also from Canada, Mexico, Europe and Africa.

The trainees are a diverse bunch, varying in age from a woman in her 90s to a 14-year-old boy. They include judges, scientists, politicians and teachers, as well as Hollywood actor Cameron Diaz. Several other celebrities, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Laura Dern, were unable to make the sessions due to other commitments.

So far, about 850 messengers have been trained in the United States and another 85 in Australia. More sessions are planned in Nashville in late spring. Gore also plans to do training in the United Kingdom and Australia, and maybe India and China, too.

The success of the project may have answered Gore's personal frustration - one he expresses in the film - over his failure as a politician to get the message about climate change across to the public. An Inconvenient Truth has become the world's third best-grossing documentary, after Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins, and is a likely Oscar candidate.

"We have failed to mobilize an organized response in this country to global warming," says Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, who took the course in January. "This is one of the motivating factors for him."

Gore tells his trainees they are the "cavalry" who must take the battle forward from now on. Since the training began the messengers have already surpassed Gore's personal tally of presentations, which runs into the thousands.

"That's what most tickles him pink," said Clad. "It's a grass roots organization, and it's sort of become a movement."

The message is certainly spreading. Fernandez has already exceeded her quota of presentations, conducting 18 in the Tampa Bay area, including local school students, as well as Hillsborough county science teachers.

More than 30 staffers at the Tampa offices of the Loan Corp., Florida's largest mortgage broker, packed the firm's conference room Friday for her 40-minute talk.

They listened intently as she flashed up Gore's slides with grim images of melting glaciers and graphs of population growth and rising energy demand.

She ends on a positive note. "It's not true that global warming is not fixable," she said, reeling off a list of "convenient" things everyone can do to be more energy efficient.

Her message seems to hit home. "I was clueless, it was very informative," said Maria Valeri, 40, who works in accounting.

"No wonder the rest of the world hates us!" added loan officer Matt Moskos, 28, referring to the United States' disproportionate 30 percent share of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

Fernandez says that while the messengers may lack Gore's star power, the concept works well.

"Some people don't like Mr. Gore," she says. "A presentation is more personal. People want to ask questions. They want to know why you are doing it."

Fernandez has no doubts about her reasons. "So many people I talk to don't think it's going to happen in our lifetime. They need to hear it."

David Adams is co-author of a blog on alternative energy, The Fueling Station, at http://blogs.tampabay.com/energy/

More information

Find out about the Climate Project go to www.theclimateproject.org

By the numbers

1 Rank of 2006 as hottest year on record in the continental United States.

1 Rank of United States as top global warming polluter, emitting almost as much as the European Union, Russia and Japan combined.

20% Increase of America's carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels since 1990.

15% Increase of America's carbon dioxide emissions forecast by 2020 if pollution is not capped.

78 Number of days by which the U.S. fire season has increased over the past 20 years.

200-million Number of people who could be displaced globally by extreme droughts, sea level rise and flooding by 2080.

0 Number of federal bills passed by Congress to cap America's global warming pollution.