By Maureen Lee Lenker
September 08, 2020 at 11:00 AM EDT
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Jane Fonda is practically synonymous with activism.

A longtime force in the fight for civil rights, women's rights, and the anti-Vietnam War movement, Fonda recently has pivoted her activism to one of the most pressing issues of our day: climate change. Last fall, she began hosting Fire Drill Fridays in Washington, D.C., leading demonstrations to foment change and instigate action to combat the climate crisis. Fonda even famously accepted an award last year while being arrested for civil disobedience.

On Tuesday, Fonda takes her work from the streets to the page with her new book What Can I Do? My Path From Climate Despair to Action. Fonda can be heard reading from chapter 5 in the exclusive clip above, in which she discusses the ties between women and climate change and the possibility of facing jail time after another arrest.

Structured around different themes including water, migration, and human rights, the book foregrounds the voices of leading climate scientists and experts while laying out action we can take in our daily lives immediately. All proceeds from the book will go to Greenpeace.

We called up Fonda to discuss where she got the idea for this book, the role of activism in her life, and why she thinks we need something more immediate than narrative film to address our current crisis.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What came first, Fire Drill Fridays or the book? And how did they feed each other?

JANE FONDA: I went to D.C. and started Fire Drill Fridays. I had no intention of doing a book. Because we didn't even know if it was going to be successful. [But] I realized that that we had tapped into something that was very important: people's willingness to take a next step, to put their bodies on the line and engage in civil disobedience, and do it on a regular basis. Civil disobedience has been a key factor in historic changes globally. It has to become the new normal if we're going to survive this. We were so excited by what was happening that we decided I should do a book. Every chapter is one fire drill because every fire drill focuses on a different aspect of the climate crisis. I don't think enough people realize all the different aspects of our lives affected by the climate crisis, so it was women, jobs, oceans, forests, health, food — and at the end, concrete things people can do.

Did you decide to do the book because it increased visibility of these issues?

We wanted to take the content of the Fire Drill Fridays and make it accessible on a much broader level. I've written a lot of books, but I love this book so much. It's become my bible; I use it as a textbook. It's very user-friendly. You can flip to a certain chapter and check on a fact. While there are a lot of books about climate, this is really different. It's just very accessible, and it's also very personal. We definitely wanted it to come out before the election. Because we talk a lot in the book about the importance of voting. I hope it will have an impact on the election.

You've been involved in civil disobedience and activism your entire adult life. Why is it so central to you?

Because things need fixing. There's a lot wrong. Overarching over everything, whether it's racism, violence, misogyny, is the climate crisis. If we can't do what's needed in the next 10 years, which is to cut fossil fuel emissions in half, the scientists tell us that we will hit a tipping point beyond which we lose control. As far as we know, this is the only planet that has just the right amount of oxygen, the things that allow life. If those things begin to collapse, that's it. There's a lot of issues that I focus on and I try to help people understand the interconnections between. For example, we have to end white supremacy if we're going to end the climate crisis, the mentality that caused the climate crisis — rape, extraction. That mentality is what caused the climate crisis. It's the same mentality that allows for unbelievable violence against people of color and LGBTQ people, and people who are different in whatever ways that white cisgender men don't like.

Would you say that your interest in and devotion to climate change evolved out of or ties back to all those other causes because it's so interlinked?

I have been concerned about the environment since early in my life. I've made all the individual changes in my life to reduce my carbon footprint. But that's the onramp, that's the place to start. It's not the place to stop. I didn't know what steps to take after that. Until I read a book called On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, by Naomi Klein. That's what motivated me to go to Washington, and use what platform I have to try to alert people to the urgency of the crisis that we're facing.

What Can I Do
Credit: HarperCollins

What's the most shocking or uplifting thing you learned in writing and researching this book?

Boy, I learned so much. I learned a tremendous amount. One of the reasons that I wanted to structure the Fire Drill Fridays the way I did was because I wanted to learn. I wanted to learn the role that deforestation plays in climate, the role of the destruction of the ocean. I wanted to know where women fit into it. It was like going back to school for me. One of the things that comes to mind is the extent to which there are places all over this country where people are getting seriously ill and dying because of the fossil fuel industry. There's places all over the country in low-income communities and communities of color where people are dying right now. I grew up in California, so I knew about the oil wells next to homes, but I didn't realize how pervasive it is and how many people are really getting sick. I didn't realize how deliberate it was. In 1987, [a study] showed that the fossil fuel industry deliberately chose to [put] their wells, fracking, refineries and incinerators in communities where people have no power. You don't see this in Beverly Hills or in Bel-Air, places where people have political power. They're banking on those who do have power won't care. They're called sacrifice zones. One more thing is I've heard from a lot of young climate activists, and the degree to which they are in mourning for what has been lost and the potential for their future to be destroyed, I don't wonder that they're so angry. Not just how smart they are and how committed and passionate they are, but how deep the damage has been to them psychologically.

You've channeled your activism into films before, like with Coming Home and 9 to 5. Would you do the same for climate change?

There have been a lot of very good documentaries. In my experience, it takes a good two to four years to get a film made, and we don't have that kind of time. I'm almost 83 years old; I don't have that kind of time. What I'm interested in is getting unprecedented numbers of people in the streets. That's what changes history.

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