Don Cheadle, Rick Perry, and Climate Change’s Impact on One Texas Town

It’s thrilling to have a weekly blog on TPM – at least for the next nine weeks while our series, Years of Living Dangerously, runs on Showtime. As Josh noted a few days ago, the two of us go back to when his office was a corner table in the Starbuck’s north of Dupont Circle and he wrote TPM all by himself.

Early along, when my partner, Joel Bach, and I were searching for strong characters who could help tell the climate change story, I hopped on a plane for Lubbock, Texas, to meet Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, who teaches climate science at Texas Tech. I’d heard a lot about Katharine – a distinguished climate scientist who’s also an Evangelical Christian.

Katharine is a brilliant and cheery communicator with a special passion for engaging other Evangelicals on climate change. I spent hours with Katharine and her husband Drew Farley, a conservative Evangelical pastor, over coffee and tacos. Katharine and Drew have a great ‘conversion’ story: Katharine had to convince Drew after they married that burning fossil fuels really is heating up the planet. Drew talked about how infuriating it was for him to listen to voices on a local radio talk show denounce Katharine as a communist for wanting government policies to rein in climate change. I left Lubbock with a sense that Katharine and Drew are exactly the kind of people we were looking for to help us reach a broad audience. Now we had to find the right story.

At about the same time, Joel and I were trying to persuade Don Cheadle to be a correspondent on our series. We met for lunch at the New York Hilton. At first, Don begged off. “This issue is important to me, but I’m no expert,” he said. “Great”, we said, “we don’t want you to be an expert – just someone who’s curious and can ask the questions the audience would ask.” In the end, he agreed to do it, but we didn’t know yet what story he’d do.

Then, in January, 2013, one of our associate producers burst into a staff meeting to tell us a Cargill meat packing plant in Plainview, Texas, had to close down. Turns out that because of the drought, there just weren’t enough cows in Texas to justify keeping the plant open.

We jumped on the story. Plainview – pop. 25,000 – was going to lose more than 2,000 jobs overnight, a vivid and horrific example of the cost everyday people bear because of extreme weather. We checked a map and saw that Plainview was just up the road from Lubbock, so it was part of Katharine’s extended community. Don loved the story and pretty soon flew in to Lubbock to meet the newly unemployed Cargill workers – and Katharine. (When Don visited Katharine and Drew, he met their 6-year-old son Gavin who has, no joke, a stuffed replica of the world’s fastest land mammal he calls Don Cheatah).

The story turned out to be a tough one to do. We hoped Cargill would tell us what their projections are for the drought-affected plains. No dice. Then we discovered something we should have surmised: none of the laid-off Cargill workers we spoke with linked their fate to climate change. And that, we realized, was a big part of the story. If you live in a town, a region, a country where leaders are radio silent on human-caused climate change, no matter how destructive it is, you’re unlikely to connect the dots. We asked for interviews with leaders of the Texas Republican establishment: Governor Perry, Senators Cornyn and Cruz, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (Plainview’s congressman), even the sublime, climate-denying ex-chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Rep. Lamar Smith. They all turned us down.

In the end, we think our story worked. We built it around a former Cargill forklift driver named Nellie Montez and how, with Katharine Hayhoe’s help, she came to understand how human-caused climate change has affected West Texas – and her life. She also listened carefully to Katharine argument that scientific evidence is compatible with religious faith. (you can still see the whole first episode on our website:

The Plainview story got us thinking about a campaign to get our leaders to take a stand on climate change. It’s not a priority for the public, and we need to change that. One reason the media doesn’t adequately cover the issue is because politicians, business leaders and pop icons don’t talk about it. And leaders are remaining silent because they aren’t hearing from their constituents and the public at large.

We want to help change this negative dynamic. So we’re focusing this week on Texas Governor Rick Perry, a poster boy for climate denial (What’s behind the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists on global warming? According to Perry, it’s because the scientists are ravenous for all that federal grant money.) We need your help to bring Perry out from behind his curtain of silence and ignorance on global warming. We hope you’ll use the tools below to help get the Governor to engage in a conversation about climate change and drought – a conversation that can help Nellie Montez and her fellow Cargill workers get a better handle on why they are where they are – and what can be done about it.