‘We’re trying to turn the magnet towards optimism’: Cate Blanchett on her new climate crisis podcast
Cate Blanchett is Australian. I mention this fact because I’d forgotten it, somehow, so her manner of speaking – upbeat, front-footed, Aussie-accented – comes as a surprise. And I’ve spent quite some time hearing her talk over the past couple of days, as she has a new podcast, Climate of Change, which she hosts with her friend Danny Kennedy, another Australian. Kennedy is the CEO of an environmental non-profit, New Energy Nexus, and runs the California Clean Energy Fund. Their podcast, as you may have guessed from the title, is about the climate emergency. But before you come over all world-weary and what’s-the-point, before you get tetchy about preachy celebrities telling us stuff we already know, you might as well stop. Blanchett is already there.
“You can recycle up the wazoo, Miranda,” she says (told you she’s Australian), “but it can just make you feel more cross and isolated and panicky… I get that. What we’re trying to do with the podcast is to turn the magnet towards optimism in these incredibly pessimistic times.”
We’re talking via video link, but Blanchett has her camera turned off. Kennedy, who’s in his office in Oakland, California, hasn’t and he wanders around, showing us the view from the window (just some more offices, really). Blanchett’s location is a secret, due to heavy-handed PRs and her natural privacy, though I’d guess she’s in the UK (she lives in Sussex).
Their location doesn’t really matter, of course, as they’re talking about a worldwide problem. The climate crisis is very real – we need to halve the world’s carbon emissions by 2030 – and becoming even more so for those living in Europe, with our reliance on Russian gas. If you think about it all too hard, you can panic.
And Blanchett does, she says. In the first episode, she chats into the mic as she drives her electric car towards London and discusses how overwhelmed she can feel by the “tide of bad news”. She describes herself as a “mother of four” (the oldest is 20, the youngest seven) and an “optimistic pessimist”, and confesses to range anxiety as she forgot to plug in her car to charge last night. Her role in the show is to represent the listener, really, which is weird as she’s globally famous. But Blanchett’s everyday attitude is similar to many: she wonders aloud if making an effort, when it comes to the environment, is worth it. Why bother recycling, up the wazoo or no, if the tipping point to the end of the world is so close and the people in power are still locked into fossil fuels?
She and Kennedy made Climate of Change earlier this year, mostly in a studio in east London. They have some strong guests: Adam McKay, the director of Don’t Look Up, makes an appearance, as does Prince William, to talk about his Earthshot prize. (He explains it very well, actually; it sounds much more interesting than I’d realised.) Still, at the start of the series, in common with many climate emergency podcasts, the discussion can feel rather broad, with smudgy chat about tech and innovation and the “disruptive decade”. At one point, someone says: “We are the stories we tell ourselves”, which might be true but doesn’t help that much with the gas bill. By episode two, however, the show is focusing on real-life solutions and these are undoubtedly encouraging. We meet a Filipino woman who’s designed a clean energy lamp that local fisherpeople can use; the Londoner who’s brought gardening to train stations; the designer of living sea walls that encourage plants and fish to thrive. One California company, OhmConnect, has such a good idea about reducing at-home use of electricity that I try to sign up. But it’s not yet available in the UK.
What they’re trying to do with the podcast, says Kennedy, is appeal to people like me. To show us tired recyclers that the answers to environmental catastrophe are already out there. “I think the choir has heard the doom and gloom song for a long time,” he says, “and sung it from the song sheet, like a good choir would. What they haven’t been taught is the song about solutions and the fact we’ve got them.”
“A lot of people are feeling fatigued,” says Blanchett. “I think we need a sense of, ‘No, don’t worry, these changes are happening.’ Because they are.”
Blanchett and Kennedy met in Sydney in the early 1990s. They were part of the same social circle – Kennedy wrote a play with Andrew Upton, now Blanchett’s husband. Later, in 2008, Blanchett and Upton were appointed co-artistic directors of Sydney Theatre Company and decided to try to make the building, an old timber-and-glass warehouse, as ecologically sound as possible. They enlisted Kennedy to help. He brought in consultants – “one guy called Gavin Gilchrist: Cate, if you recall, the fellow who did the toilet flushes” – and helped redo the insulation to make the building “tighter and better, even though it was a pretty old, leaky, wooden construction”.
The biggest proposal was the installation of solar energy panels, which proved difficult to get past heritage rules and the general cynicism of Sydney’s county council. “We were met by a lot of internal scepticism and external opposition,” remembers Blanchett. “You know: ‘What has this to do with a cultural institution, what does it have to do with making theatre, why are we bothering?’ So we thought: ‘OK, we’ll be at the theatre company for 10 years and we have a whole suite of ambitions. And the solar panels will probably be the last one we achieve, if we do.’ And it was the first one we achieved.”
It took two years. There are now 1,906 solar panels powering lights, ventilation and air con across the building. Kennedy thinks that Blanchett and Upton’s theatre project was “a catalystic moment” that kickstarted a sense in Australia that solar power was viable and cost-effective; the country is now, he says, the biggest solar market in the developed world. Blanchett thinks of it as a “symbolic gesture” that, when added to an industry shift, “all adds up”.
So she and Kennedy have known each other for ages (Blanchett recently found some old photos of his daughters when they were little) and then, last summer, Kennedy came to stay with Blanchett and her family in Cornwall. They took him to the Eden Project, which he loved, and the podcast project was started there. They visited “these old mines that are engaged in modern, clean-energy transition minerals and materials production – I’m a geek, I love that,” he says. For Blanchett, the show was “a much more primal urge. We sort of had to. I had so many questions.”
I ask her about using celebrity to get attention on important issues. “Look,” she says, “if you have your two minutes in the sun, you can highlight solar technology or you can highlight an underwear line. But I’m genuine when I say that there were a lot of questions, embarrassingly ignorant questions, that I’ve been asking Danny over the decades. And I thought, ‘Well, I can’t be alone.’ When you ask a question, however ignorant or ill-informed it may be, you’re asking to open a door to a deeper understanding.”
The public, with their simple questions (but why can’t we switch to wind or solar power?) often seem to be ahead of politicians when it comes to clean energy. People want environmentally friendly solutions, but the powers that be just say no. Kennedy agrees “100%” and describes a whole institutional mindset that needs to change.
“For a long time, we’ve depended on these big, stodgy, 20th-century utilities where reliability was everything,” he says. “And now we’re jumping to these disruptive business models, where you’ve got distributed renewables and lots of different loads, and assets in the grid, and you need a flexible business model that’s a bit more marketplace… and the regulators can’t even contemplate it. They’re just like, ‘Oh, no. The way we do it, one big central station at a time, you’re never going to build enough wind and solar that way.’ And we’re like, ‘Yes, but that’s not how we want to build it. We want to build it on everything; every house, every roof, every garage becomes a storage system,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s all too complex.’”
I can feel my gloom descending again. “Yes, but it’s just a challenge,” says Kennedy. “We live with institutions and cultural norms and bureaucracies that have trouble moving at the pace of change required, even though the technology and the consumer and the businesses are ready to deliver. That’s the tension. We could solve this.”
Blanchett is keen to encourage, too. “The solution to the overwhelm is engagement,” she says. “There’s not going to be one magic bullet; it’s going to have to be governmental change, policy shifts, as well as consumer shifts and massive industry shifts. The way we do business with one another, the way we travel, it’s all of these things. At the heart of it is engagement. In the last two years, there’s been a real emotional and psychological reckoning that we’ve all been through, on top of the environmental crisis. But out of that comes a chance for renewal and we’d be crazy not to take it.”
Perhaps Blanchett and Kennedy’s can-do attitude will rub off on listeners. Their articulacy and dynamism are certainly starting to make me feel a little better. Blanchett reminds me that, for every horrible environment-attacking corporate move, there has been a pro-conservation pushback. And, after all, says Kennedy, these strange, turbulent times might shake down into a more positive future.
“What if we take this opportunity of this very volatile decade and we come out the other end of it better off?” he says. “Cheap, clean energy in the hands of people, not in the hands of despot lunatics that fund wars with this stuff? What about it? That’d be nice, right?” Right!
Climate of Change With Cate Blanchett and Danny Kennedy is made by Dirty Films and is an Audible Original podcast, out now