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Before a packed hall, actor and activist Jane Fonda gave the keynote at the U.S. Green Building Council’s twentieth-anniversary Greenbuild International Conference in San Francisco on November 2. In a 45-minute chat with comedian Louis Virtel, she discussed her work addressing the climate crisis and her optimism for climate action. But it was Fonda who got the laughs, as she interspersed strident calls for change with zingers. In response to Virtel’s opening query about her recent diagnosis of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Fonda said she almost wished her treatment would have made her lose her hair: “I was going to shave my head and tattoo ‘climate emergency’ on it.”

Virtel then asked Fonda about her Fire Drill Fridays, a weekly rally on Capitol Hill that she instituted in 2019 with Greenpeace USA, where participants engage in civil disobedience to protest the government’s climate inaction. “I figured this little old lady from Hollywood shows up and gets arrested every week,” she said, “that’s going to get people noticing.” Fire Drill Fridays moved online during COVID but will return in person next month and respond to the results of the midterm elections.

To bring fossil fuels (which Fonda points out are the main source of the climate crisis) into the midterm conversation, she formed the Jane Fonda Climate PAC. Its goal is “to defeat fossil fuels supporters and elect climate champions at all levels of government.” The PAC is endorsing 11 federal, 25 state, and 13 local candidates running this November. “Because we’re new and I’m not a Koch brother,” she said, referring to the famously conservative siblings, “We are doing down-ballot races all around the country.”

Jane Fonda at Greenbuild in SF.

Jane Fonda speaks at the U.S. Green Building Council’s Greenbuild International Conference on November 2. Photo courtesy Greenbuild

Fonda recounted her personal history with green building for the audience. In 1976, she and then-husband Tom Hayden, inspired by the Village Homes ecological subdivision in Davis, California, hired that community’s developer-architect, Michael Corbett, to build an off-the-grid house. She recalled the difficulty of getting permits for solar panels and heat circulated from fireplaces and a greenhouse. She also admitted to getting tax deductions for the project, acknowledging, “Homes that are healthy and environmentally sound can’t just be for rich people.” Fonda pointed out another issue of economic disparity in the green energy sector, claiming its employees are not unionized as fossil fuel employees are. Her call for change was a small chastisement in a talk otherwise full of praise for the green-building community: “You’re on the side of angels.”

She had words of encouragement too. “Don’t lose your focus. Keep finding better and better ways to make buildings healthy, resilient, and green,” she said. “Be brave, and let that metastasize—I have cancer on the brain, but, I mean in a good way—spread it around.”

Fonda is one funny woman. And her spoonful of sugar might be just the thing to help the medicine of climate action go down. While the speaker who preceded her at Greenbuild used the phrase “maximize the synergies,” Fonda told of skinny dipping with Greta Garbo and Michael Jackson (“not at the same time, obviously”), which kept the audience’s attention. Fonda famously brought public support for the tough cause of women’s rights with the 1980 comedy 9 to 5. Can she please produce a similar film for the climate crisis?