In the hit television series, “The Office,” actor Rainn Wilson played the hilarious and lovable sidekick, Dwight Schrute, to Steve Carell’s character, boss Michael Scott. In real life, Wilson is funny, too, as we found out recently in a telephone interview, but he is also serious, about environmental issues. Wilson, 54, has produced a YouTube series called, “An Idiot’s Guide To Climate Change,” which includes visits to Iceland and Greenland, and interviews with climate activist Greta Thunberg along with some prominent climatologists. Following are edited excerpts from a longer conversation.
What initially drew your attention to climate change?
Rainn Dietrich Wilson: I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and did a lot of back-packing and camping as a kid, really loved nature, was super-connected to it. Later, the stuff I began reading about climate change kind of scared me. And the only thing I was doing was sending out angry tweets to climate-change deniers. I thought I needed to do more. I was introduced to this woman, Dr. Gail Whiteman, from a non-profit called Arctic Basecamp. She invited me to camp out in arctic research tents at the World Economic Forum at Davos [Switzerland]. Later, she invited me to Greenland to visit with some scientists to talk about climate change. I brought along my digital media company, SoulPancake, and we did a super-low-budget, DIY docu-series called, “An Idiot’s Guide To Climate Change,” to help get information out there in an accessible way.
In the series, you successfully combine humor, which you obviously have experience in, with a more serious subject. Explain.
Rainn Dietrich Wilson: I actually knew a fair amount about climate change before we did the show, but for fun pretended not to while taping. I’m not one of those actors who needs to look cool and be an authority all the time. I can be the big, fat, goofy, weird guy going along on a trip, trying to learn what he can. That’s where the humor comes from. I just see the world, then interact with it in my own peculiar way. You always see headlines, “Glaciers Melting, Droughts Here, Wildlife Displaced.” They’re so daunting and heavy. I’m passionate about climate change, and I can barely read that stuff myself. So it’s super-important to have material that has a lighter, more fun, wacky touch, like ours.
Speaking of wacky, you traveled to both Greenland and Iceland for your series. I’ve always wanted to know: Why is Greenland called Greenland, even though it’s all ice-cap, whereas Iceland is called Iceland, despite having no ice-cap?
Rainn Dietrich Wilson: Because the Vikings were idiots [laughs]. Everyone celebrates the Vikings. “Ooh, the Vikings were so cool, so awesome.” Well, where are they now, world? They misname things. If they were truly successful, they would have been more like the Romans, had a Viking Empire. They were only in it for short-term gain – a little raping and pillaging, blowing some horns – then called it a day. I think Dwight Schrute would have mirrored my opinion on that one [laughs].
On a more serious note, what do you think of President-elect Joe Biden’s pick of John Kerry as climate czar?
Rainn Dietrich Wilson: I think it’s a good pick, a safe pick. The U.S. needs to regain an international conversation about climate, and work together with other countries on reducing CO2. Kerry’s a former statesman. He’s very familiar with the issue. We don’t need a 27-year-old running this, telling everyone that they can no longer buy a new car, or something like that. We need someone with gravitas and experience to lead. Fingers crossed that he’s able to move things forward in the next couple of years.
You’ve interviewed Sweden’s Greta Thunberg and some prominent scientists for the climate series. Who else do you want to chat with, maybe a dream interview?
Rainn Dietrich Wilson: I won’t say it’s just one person. What’s really cool is that, as you go around the world, climate leaders and activists tend to be young women. I think there is something powerful about teenage and 20-something girls leading the charge. They’re connected to the Earth, they care about the environment. One person I would still like to interview is Licypryia Kangujam, an Indian climate activist, and another teenage girl leading the charge.
In doing the series, what was your biggest “aha” moment, the thing that surprised you most?
Rainn Dietrich Wilson: That the goals set at the Paris agreements four or five years ago are reachable. We can do this. But we have to act now, and severely. We’ve got to stop burning coal. We can reach that goal of a 1.5-degree Celsius change versus 2, 2.5 or 3 degrees. If you get into those higher numbers, the effects can be absolutely devastating. The other thing I learned is just how fragile ecosystems are. Turtles really have to fight for survival. They are 300-million-years-old, living dinosaurs. As ocean levels rise, there’s less room for them to lay their eggs. Many are getting confused and are unable to lay eggs on beaches that have been covered or washed away. I don’t know the exact biology, but the gender of a turtle egg is chosen by temperature. And warmer temperatures tend to turn eggs female. So, all of a sudden, you have eggs hatching that are 60-, 70-, 80-percent female, and there are not enough males to procreate. It’s these little things you don’t think about. You can go through every ecosystem, especially in the arctic, and there are chain reactions like these, even with changes of a degree or two. Learning about such things really blew my mind.
Where also might you want to go for the series? Siberia?
Rainn Dietrich Wilson: Maybe Siberia is a good idea because you’ve got permafrost melting, which is really scary. That large percentage of Earth stays frozen year-round, and it’s been that way for 100,000 years. Now that it’s melting, a lot of methane is coming up, and that’s even worse than CO2. Then again, I don’t know if it’s worth flying around to all of these places, leaving such a large carbon footprint in order to tell the story. I really don’t know.
How would your “Office” character, Dwight Schrute, handle climate change?
Rainn Dietrich Wilson: Dwight is a beet farmer. First, he would do some deep research into how climate change was affecting beets. I’m sure it’s adversely. Then, he’d have to check the weather systems in Pennsylvania. Farmers more and more are seeing extreme events: big drouts, high flooding and scalding temperatures affecting their crops in ways that they, their parents, their grandparents and their great-grandparents had never experienced. It is not natural to see such rapid temperature changes throughout history. They’ve spiked up so much in the last 100, 150 years. So I think Dwight, with a connection to his character “Recyclops” and his knowledge as a farmer, would come around to becoming some kind of climate-change activist. At least, that’s what I would hope for him as a character.
Originally published on Forbes.com