Could Arnold Schwarzenegger be the Climate Hero the U.S. Needs?

advocacy climate government leadership op-ed Jun 15, 2023

To some, he may be most well known for his role as The Terminator in the classic movie franchise of the same name. To others, he’s remembered as being one of California’s few movie stars who has held public office. To a new generation who didn’t live through either of those career accomplishments, he could be the next climate leader.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has had a career that sprawls across two continents and ranges from the glitz and glamor of tinsel town to the steps of California’s Capitol in Sacramento. His story is not unusual in California - he could have very well been the next Ronald Regan if the circumstances had been different - but he is unique.

To get what I mean, let’s take a quick walk down memory lane. He was born in 1947 in Austria to a father who had been a member of the Nazi party (this is important to remember later on) and moved to the US in 1968. In 1986, he joined one of the largest political dynasties in the United States with his marriage to Maria Shriver. Fast forward more than 15 years to his election as California’s Governor in 2003, where he served 8 years until his departure in 2011.

Schwarzenegger ran as a Republican and maintained his political outlook throughout both terms in office, and largely had support from the GOP. However, many have wondered what the former Governor’s political beliefs really are.

History can be tricky - we need to look at things through the lens of the thinking at that time, not through our lens today. What I mean by that is it’s undeniably true that we’ve seen the Republican party go through a massive shift in the past 15 or so years. The political divide we have today is far greater than it was in the early-mid 2000s. Today, we see far fewer politicians who are moderates or centrists and this is where I tip my hat to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As someone who grew up in a home where bigotry was openly communicated and acted upon, and joined a political party that has gone through extensive changes, Schwarzenegger has maintained his centrist beliefs, denounced hate in all of its forms, and has become an outspoken advocate for climate action. Unlearning what was taught to you at a young age or going against your party’s agenda is gutsy, difficult, and, in my opinion, commendable.  

I may be showing my bias - I grew up in a family all across the political map. Some family members are outspoken supporters of socialism, where Bernie Sanders was seen as a saving grace for this country, and some family members are lifelong Republicans who openly support Donald Trump… You can imagine how awkward Thanksgiving dinners are.

My family is not unlike many families here in the U.S., and for those of us caught in the middle who are looking left and right at the same time, sometimes it’s refreshing to see someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger taking center (or centrist) stage. And while I can respect that his political beliefs are different than mine, it appears we can agree on this: climate change is the most urgent issue of our time. 

This may sound like I am fully on the Schwarzenegger bandwagon, but to be totally honest with you, I haven’t thought much about him since he left office in 2011. Even then, I was only thirteen years old and didn’t even really notice. However, he has popped up on my radar again thanks to his recent climate comments in an interview with CBS News

In the interview, Schwarzenegger says: 

“As long as they keep talking about global climate change, they’re never going to go anywhere because no one gives a shit about that. So my thing is, let’s go and rephrase this and communicate differently about it and really tell people we’re talking about pollution, pollution creates climate change and pollution kills.”

At first, I didn’t understand or appreciate what he was saying. This felt like an oversimplified version of what’s really going on with the climate crisis. It’s not very punchy, it doesn’t really play to people’s emotions, and it isn’t as technical as other climate campaigns we’ve seen. Greenpeace is good at scaring us, the IPCC is good at bringing us the hard facts, but maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger is good at bringing us together.

Upon second glance, I don’t think that what he’s saying is half bad (you’ll hear Al Gore refer to GHG as heat-trapping pollution in his Climate Reality Project presentations). Maybe we need more simplicity to get more people on board with climate action. I don’t think anyone wants to live in a community with poor air quality (as we’ve seen from the many complaints of NYC residents and the people of East Palestine, Ohio), so maybe this is how we have to communicate climate change, emissions, and related issues with the average person in America.

But, driving climate action doesn’t start nor stop with the average consumer. Ultimately, the responsibility to drive climate action relies on governments and businesses - which Arnold helps out with too.

Climate change is a difficult topic to understand, even for us who work in the climate or sustainability space. Most of us understand that the greenhouse effect from the release of heat-trapping emissions is driving the change in our climate, but how many of us get into the weeds of the science to fully understand what’s going on? Probably not most of us. Better yet, how many of us can communicate to children what’s going on with our climate? I’ve tried talking to my four-year-old nephew about climate change - the “why”s are endless and the answers are limited.

To Arnold’s point, maybe simplicity is key. This could be the best way to bring both sides of the aisle together and unite citizens against a common enemy. Is it aggressive enough? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but maybe we’ve exhausted all other tactics.

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