Actor-environmentalist Ian Somerhalder

In his on-air conversation, the tireless advocate for positive social change and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador explains his passion for protecting the environment.

In our web exclusive clip, Somerhalder answers viewer Twitter questions, including about the work of his foundation.

For his turn in the hit drama, The Vampire Diaries, as well as his portrayal of one of the Lost survivors, Ian Somerhalder has amassed legions of fans. His body of work also includes other series and several film and stage roles. The former child model has used this star status to advocate for a better Earth. He was born and raised in Louisiana and, after the BP oil spill devastated the Gulf Coast, returned home to help. He subsequently launched a foundation to positively impact the planet and its creatures and has won several awards for his environmental work. Somerhalder is also a correspondent for Showtime's Years of Living Dangerously series, which explores issues of climate change.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: It’s always fascinating to find out what prompts individuals to become activists in the first place. For actor Ian Somerhalder, who has a devoted following from both “Lost” and now “The Vampire Diaries,” of course, it was seeing what the BP oil spill did to the Gulf Coast of his home state of Louisiana.

Since then he’s dedicated so much of his time to finding solutions to environmental problems, and he’s currently one of the celebrity correspondents for the Showtime series, “Years of Living Dangerously.”

Ian’s episode is called “Ice and Brimstone.” Let’s take a look.

[Clip]

Tavis: And I thought it was just members of Congress who wanted to debate Congress.

Ian Somerhalder: This whole experience has just been so mind-blowing. Anna Jane Joyner and I really bonded, and Pastor Rick Joyner bonded a great deal. But I think because politics and religion are so inextricably linked and so prohibitive in many ways, this show, particularly this episode, is really going to – well the idea; let me rephrase that.

The idea is that it really opens up a conversation, which is – and I said this to Pastor Joyner. I said, “Okay, so I understand you’re a man of faith and you’re an amazing man of faith. A wildly intelligent, compassionate man.

“But the question is is that,” and he calls himself a “steward of God.” I said, “If you are a steward of God, don’t you find that it’s your responsibility to take the science and information that’s real out there right now and give it to your congregation, as opposed to telling them, and denying it, that this is not happening?”

I think there’s a growing sensibility that whether you’re a sports figure, a movie star, or an evangelical preacher, if you have a platform, you’re ultimately responsible to provide information that’s real to people.

Particularly when it involves something that deals with all of us. Climate change is not just happening to you or them; it’s happening to all of us.

Tavis: You have a massive – that’s the biggest word I can think of right now – a humungous, massive following on social media.

Somerhalder: Yeah, they’re amazing.

Tavis: They love you, and -

Somerhalder: And I love them.

Tavis: So I’m trying to figure out how it is – because I can only assume. Let me make an assumption here. I assume that a whole bunch of them are young people.

Somerhalder: They are young.

Tavis: Okay, so you know this. Okay.

Somerhalder: A great deal of it.

Tavis: All right. So how do you make this issue of climate change – and I even hate the phrase but I’ll use it anyway – how do you make it sexy, attractive. You know what I’m getting at, right?

Somerhalder: Absolutely.

Tavis: Okay, take it.

Somerhalder: That’s actually an incredible question, and I asked myself that years and years ago, after BP, after the BP oil spill happened. Like you said, I’m from the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, so watching my entire home be destroyed.

How do you make it cool, how do you make it sexy? Well one cool thing about it is that the most underdeveloped, underutilized, underappreciated, and undervalued group of people in the world are our youth, but they make up half the population and they’re going to be running the world.

So why wouldn’t we give them the tools, ultimately, to be able to do that? Yes, by virtue of the fact that most of them are very young, if they would not typically be watching a show like “Years of Living Dangerously,” if it takes something like a vampire soap opera, which has been such a great five years of storytelling that really resonated with this audience and built this audience.

My whole thing is I don’t know how to do very much in the world, but leveraging entertainment value and using social media to create quantifiable global change, that I know how to do.

What’s so exciting about that is that if a 15 or 16-year-old young person is watching “Years of Living Dangerously,” all of a sudden they become empowered by all this information.

So ideally what you want to do is – and it all stems from a compassionate place. The biggest thing missing in life, the reason we don’t necessarily look through life in this more holistic framework, is that there’s such a lack of compassion for anything.

So I guess what I’m saying is that if it takes me being a face of this one episode or component of the show to get young people watching it, then so be it.

Tavis: So in a perfect world – not to be confused with the one that we inhabit – but in a perfect world, what do you want them to use their agency to do?

Somerhalder: You mean the -

Tavis: These young people that you’re talking to.

Somerhalder: It’s very, very, very simple. Once you’ve empowered them with information and education, they’re now activated people. I guess what I would hope, that would lend itself to creating a scenario where these young people, now armed with all this information, start living their lives out of this compassionate, holistic viewpoint, because it’s the only thing that’s going to change.

By the way, and it all comes from a collaborative spirit. Whether it’s for-profits, nonprofits, governmental bodies, whatever that must be, it has to be collaboration.

So when you empower someone with this information, like “Years of Living Dangerously,” they’re now activated. They now want to go out. Their dads might be the CEO of some company; they might be the mayor of a small community.

These people are now going out, they’re starting recycling programs, they’re building animal sanctuaries. They’re doing things to better their communities. They’re doing – people are like starting recycling programs in places like Kabul because of the Ian Somerhalder Foundation and what it, and how much compassion just shoots out there and empowers people. It’s really, really powerful.

Tavis: What I’m trying to juxtapose against the energy and the passion and the examples you’ve just offered now of what people really are doing, I’m trying to juxtapose that on Earth Day 2014 with the sense that this is an intractable issue, that we can’t make progress on this, that we’ve passed the point of no return.

Somerhalder: Yeah, it’s -

Tavis: Obviously you don’t feel that way.

Somerhalder: No, there’s a very doomsday sort of feeling out there, and I think one thing I really, really, really want to make possible is that – because it is so broad. Climate change, people have no idea how they can change it.

Well a million little things, and you can almost make a game out of it, and when you get to bed at night you feel so much better about yourself. I always make the joke, telling people the dog does not have to watch TV all day.

When you leave the house, it’s okay. The dogs and cats are going to be good. Turn that thing off. The little funny things, like we’re about to run into a massive water problem.

You know when you brush your teeth in the morning; people are so used to hearing the water running while you brush your teeth. We waste 602 million gallons a day in this country because of that.

We are in a water crisis. People don’t understand that. So you end up having – to answer the question directly, it’s not so broad. It happens right here. They’re deforesting rainforests in Brazil to grow palm oil for your Girl Scout cookies or all these silly little snacks that we fill our bodies with in convenience stores.

We don’t need that. There’s good palm oil and there’s bad palm oil, and we need people to become better consumers, empowered consumers. Because the power of that consumer dollar is what’s ultimately going to create sea change.

Corporations are not going to provide – they’re going to have to deliver what their customers want.

Tavis: Do you think young people on demand are more open to that kind of message than those of us who are sort of set in our ways?

Somerhalder: Yeah, it’s not you and me. This generation – it’s not going to happen. It’s the ones that are coming after us. They’re the ones who have the ability to change it, and they are empowered. They do want to be better consumers.

This generation wants to be better, and that’s what’s so inspiring about it. One thing I want to do – and also too, say this, is that we have to turn all this negativity into a positive, you have to do it.

It’s the only way this is going to get done. So just to throw out some numbers, which is kind of insane, Beyond Coal, for the Sierra Club, there’s a woman named Mary Anne Hitt who heads that up.

They’re responsible for taking, I want to say, and don’t quote me on it, I want to say it’s 158 coal-fired power plants offline, which basically is like taking 45 million cars off the road, preventing all that carbon from going into the air.

It’s this new way of efficiency. That’s why we started Go Green Mobile Power, this green energy company, and we can produce – it’s a portable power solutions company.

We can produce so much energy and power using LED technology in remote or non-remote areas, but it’s preventing tons of carbon from going up into the air. It’s these types of innovations which are really going to set the course for the future, and I’m excited about it beyond words.

It’s a positive thing. One more thing I was going to throw out there. So basically within 50 years, 36 percent of all species will be gone. So technically, this is generation extinction, meaning this generation is going to see the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs.

So they don’t have to become generation extinction. They can actually stop that train (snaps fingers) right now. So that in and of itself is empowering.

Tavis: I am curious as to whether or not you’re hopeful that we will figure this out in time.

Somerhalder: I’m beyond hopeful. Our future rests in the next generation’s hands, bottom line. All we have to do is empower them with education and information, activate them, and let them go out into the world as these empowered, activated, compassionate, incredible individuals who are literally going to lead this charge.

We can do it. It’s just going to take a lot of work. I hear a lot of people – the great thing that I like about my situation is that I’m not a politician, I don’t have an agenda, so I get to work with both sides of the aisle in equal parts, and that’s the only way things are going to get done.

But I’ll tell you, this next generation is going to change it, man. They’re going to change it.

Tavis: So it’s impossible to squeeze, like, a 500-pound show into a 300-pound bag, (laughter) which is what I’ve tried to do tonight. So for more of my conversation with Ian, hit our website at PBS.org and there’s so much more of this conversation that you will want to experience, courtesy of our guest tonight, Ian Somerhalder. Ian, good to have you here, as always.

Somerhalder: Hey, man, thank you for having me back.

Tavis: Thank you for your work, first of all.

Somerhalder: Truly. Thank you. No, thank you.

Tavis: Thanks for your work, and not just on “The Vampire Diaries.” I mean all the stuff you’re doing. I appreciate it. So you going to come back? We can do it again.

Somerhalder: Done.

Tavis: So much to talk about.

Somerhalder: I tell you what, after this first run of the show, of “Years of Living Dangerously,” we’ll come back and we’ll talk about it again and look at some results that have happened. It’s going to be pretty awesome.

Tavis: I would love to do that

Somerhalder: Thank you, man.

Tavis: It’s “Years of Living Dangerously,” on Showtime, starring one – bam, there he is – Ian Somerhalder.

Somerhalder: Thank you guys so much.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

Darlene Love: Hey, Tavis. You’re getting your star on the Walk of Fame. I’m so excited for you. I love you so very, very much. That means you’re at the top of your game. God bless you, and congratulations. (Blows kiss)

Merry Clayton: (Singing) You are so beautiful to me. You are so beautiful to me. You’re everything we hoped for, you’re everything we need. You are so beautiful to me. Congratulations.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 23, 2014 at 1:27 pm