Robert Redford is serious about climate change.
Redford, 79, was among a handful of celebrities that gathered in Paris on Sunday to help encourage the United Nations to take a more serious stance on global warming.
“It’s very important that this is happening in Paris,” Redford told PEOPLE later that night at private dinner held at the U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO Crystal Nix-Hines’ residence. “We’ve been talking, talking, talking… it’s been so many years but now it seems like we’re on the verge of something real happening.”
At the conference that brought together 195 nations and lasted nearly 11 days, Redford, along with other Hollywood heavyweights including Leonardo Dicaprio and Sean Penn, made a personal plea to reduce fossil fuel emissions.
“This has to be the time because we’re running out of time. It’s been so many years but there’s no more time,” he said of his reason for attending the conference.
Even before taking the stage to address the conference, the actor, who has been a Natural Resources Defense Council Trustee since 1975, was hopeful about the outcome of the meeting.
“I believe this conference could produce action and an agreement that works,” he said.
Redford categorized himself as ‘optimistic’ about the future – and paused when asked whether he would characterize himself as ‘very optimistic.’
“Let’s say I’m optimistic because people can change things. People can change more than their leaders and there’s a sense of a growing movement among people here.”
Climate change, he adds “is a global problem and people worldwide are feeling the effects.”
Redford said the future of climate change relies on those outside of Washington.
“In America, there are lot of members of the political system who don’t believe the science and they’ve done a lot to stop the conversation. But worldwide, I don’t think you can stop that conversation any longer. Because people are feeling climate change in their own backyard, seeing climate change from their homes – there’re droughts and rising sea levels and you can’t deny these.”
He adds: “It’s very important what’s happening here. I think we have a moment here where we can change the momentum.”
Redford has been a longtime advocate for climate change, dating back nearly four decades. The roots of Redford’s environmental concern, he feels, are found in Los Angeles’ rapid post-war urbanization; and their cause, seeing the green spaces between communities he knew as a child vanish within a decade.
In the early 60s, the actor pulled up stakes, encamping into mountain wilderness. “When I built my cabin in Utah in ’63, ‘Environmentalist’ wasn’t a popular word,” he laughed. “You were called a ‘treehugger’ or ‘a liberal’ because the powers then were the oil and gas industries and the environmental movement was a very few and very far between voices.”
In 1975, Redford’s reputation as an environmental activist galvanized after he audaciously called 60 Minutes, inviting Dan Rather to visit the site of a proposed power plant construction he opposed. The nationally televised report – in which Redford used the phrase ‘climate change’ – forced the plant’s cancellation.
While he has since sponsored research and donated land to preservation causes, he stresses that his work alone is not enough.
“I’m only one voice and I hope adding my voice to others will help. I’m here to listen to others as well.”