For someone who supposedly "retired" in 2004, Tom Brokaw has kept plenty busy. He filled in as moderator of Meet the Press after the death of Tim Russert, pitched in on campaign coverage for NBC and completed a documentary on global warming in 2006. Covering the environment isn't a fad for Brokaw the South Dakota native is a longtime outdoorsman, often fly-fishing near his home in Montana and hiking with green friends like Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. The former NBC Nightly News anchor just finished a new climate change documentary Global Warming: The New Challenge with Tom Brokaw which airs on the Discovery Channel on Mar. 18. Brokaw spoke to TIME in New York shortly after his return from a biking trip to Africa. Apparently semi-retirement isn't so bad. (See pictures of this fragile earth.)
Why do a follow-up to your 2006 global warming documentary?
A number of things have changed, and it's getting worse, not better. We wanted to keep track of what was going on. And the bottom line is, Discovery wanted it.
What has changed for you since 2006?
There is a much greater consciousness about it now. [Energy tycoon] Boone Pickens says he is doing wind power not because of global warming but because of our reliance on foreign energy, but it's still part of that broad mosaic. Al Gore wants to take our electric power grid completely off carbon. There is going to be a new climate change treaty by the end of the year, and hopefully we'll be a signatory to it. It's back on the radar screen politically, and a lot of people are paying attention to it. You look at the changes that Wal-Mart alone had made, and they are pretty profound.
Do you sense that we're moving towards a consensus in America that global warming is real, and that we need to take action?
It's complex. I think that the vast majority of the scientific community and much of the public believes that it is real. It's a matter of consequence, how we're going to deal with this. There are a lot of complex parts. We haven't arrived at a common intersection of those parts yet, but that's not surprising given the nature of the issue we are dealing with. (See pictures of the world's most polluted places.)
Do you think the recession could actually amplify this push?
You don't want to get me started on this! There are so many opportunities in this recession for breaking down antiquated ways of doing business, and not just in the environment. You can have fresh thinking during a crisis: how can we help the environment and save ourselves some money. Packaging is a perfect example. It makes me crazy to buy two Advil in $40 worth of plastic packaging. Yvon Chouinard, who runs Patagonia, is one of my close personal friends and a big environmentalist. He tells a wonderful story: he wanted to sell underwear without any packaging. I said, 'You'll go broke!' But he just put a rubber band around it and sales went up 35%. He uses that as an example of a way to think outside the box.
The recession is dominating our attention right now. But climate change is a problem whose consequences are serious, but always far off. Do you worry that we'll lose focus on global warming?
Yes, but I do think there is focus on this. Rahm Emanuel has a great line: "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste." Jeff Immelt at General Electric has another great line, that this isn't a recession, but a reset. It's a reexamination of how we've been living. Maybe the McMansion era is crashing to an end. It doesn't mean that you can't have a big house, but the ethos of what you need is changing. (See 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.)
So you think we could see real changes in America values?
Yes, and we should have that dialogue. You don't have to go around in a sackcloth and ashes. I just came back from Africa and we won't live like they do in villages. But when you come back to America you become conscious of how much stuff we discard on a daily basis and just how much stuff we have. I have a friend who has a saying: it's not what you want, it's what you need. That's a good mantra.
Where do your own environmental interests come from?
I grew up in rural South Dakota and I had a real Tom Sawyer childhood. We lived out in a remote part of the state on the Missouri River and my life was camping and hunting and fishing in a pristine environment. And that continued in my adult years when we lived in California and my wife and I did a lot of backpacking in the Sierras. But when we moved to L.A., smog became a fixed part of our lives. I remember taking my 2-year-old daughter in L.A. to a doctor, and she said, "Oh, you can tell she was born in Los Angeles. It shows up in her lungs." That's terrifying. I thought, my God, if it shows up in a 2-year-old's lungs, that's a real problem. So I think about my grandchildren and what kind of lives they want to have. And frankly, I'm just enthralled by pristine nature. When I'm in Montana on my ranch or down in Yellowstone and looking at the crest of a hill and a strand of trees or a herd of elk, it's just thrilling for me.