On a day of record heat, Laurie David drives up to a coffee shop in Santa Monica, Calif., in a sporty Toyota Prius hybrid and parks, appropriately enough, between two SUVs. The global-warming crusader – middle-aged, fit, wearing a short skirt and stylish sunglasses – doesn't look the part of rumpled social activist. But then again, this is California.
Only a short time has passed since her triumph at the Oscars – when Al Gore received his award for "An Inconvenient Truth" and Ms. David, whom the former vice president calls the "catalyst" behind the film, flanked him on stage. But she insists this is "no time to rest on your laurels." Up since 5 a.m., she is already organizing the next move in her ecocampaign: barnstorming college campuses across the Deep South this spring along with rock star Sheryl Crow aboard a bus running on biodiesel.
As the producer of Mr. Gore's film and organizer of a "virtual march" that has garnered more than 700,000 signatures, David has emerged as one of the nation's most ardent – and arguably most successful – global warming activists. She has become adept at using pop culture to rally people to the cause– getting "green" themes folded into TV scripts, marshalling musicians to trumpet the issue, and harnessing the power of the worldwide Web.
Unlike many in Hollywood, the media doyenne and wife of famous writer/producer/comedian Larry David hasn't fastened onto global warming as a cause du jour. Nor does she seem just out to burnish her image. She has been carrying a bullhorn for almost a decade, often 12 hours a day. While critics dismiss her as a typical well-heeled Hollywood gadfly, she usually works the issue in the shadows cast by others.
"The other side has tried to write her off as this prototypical Hollywood liberal, but she is incredibly charming and persuasive," says Robert Kennedy Jr., son of the late Massachusetts senator and an environmental lawyer who has worked closely with David. "She makes you believe that it's part of your obligation to do something on behalf of civilization."
David's awakening as an environmentalist began a decade ago. Her focus on global warming is more recent. She read about how polluting her 15-mile-per-gallon SUV was and bought a Prius that got 50 miles to the gallon. Laughing, David says her friends, the few who still drive SUVs, will not park anywhere nearby when they meet her for dinner, for fear of being chastised.
David doesn't just blame conspicuous consumers. She has been a fierce critic of America's Big Three automakers for lobbying against carbon-cutting legislation and tougher fuel-economy standards. Frustration led David and Arianna Huffington, a political commentator, to found the controversial Detroit Project in 2003. The initiative created provocative TV commercials that equated driving large SUVs with aiding terrorists in oil-producing regions. The major networks refused to air them for fear of alienating advertisers.
The resistance caused David to reassess her strategy. If she couldn't engage the public through commercials, she would attempt to reach Americans in other ways. Besides convincing an initially reticent Gore to take his global-warming slide show into movie theaters., David made a hard-hitting film that appeared on HBO, went on Oprah, and recruited NASCAR drivers, Evangelicals, and country music fans. She pushed for global-warming plots to be folded into soap-opera scripts and enlisted comedians to tackle the subject. "The topic of global warming is so heavy that sometimes the only way you can open people's eyes is by greeting them with levity and self-deprecation first," says David, sipping an iced coffee.
When she first came up with the idea of a "virtual march," Mr. Kennedy, for one, was skeptical – "It sounded like nothing more than an Internet petition drive and seemed like a waste of time." But David has been able to get people across the country to sign up on the site, including many nonenvironmentalists. She's gotten signatures from Democrats running for the White House in 2008, Republicans such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Arizona Sen. John McCain, and others ranging from tycoons to sports stars.
Designed to raise awareness about global warming, the site (www.stopglobalwarming.org) acts as a clearinghouse for links to scientific data as well as a billboard for upcoming events. "I was wrong to ever underestimate her," says Kennedy. "Here she is with nearly three-quarters of a million citizens signed on, and she's using it as a platform to mobilize people in every walk of life."
By most accounts, David is a formidable personality. It hasn't hurt her campaign that she has two other things of importance in Hollywood: wealth and connections. Even she admits having money available from her husband, Larry, co-creator of the sitcom "Seinfeld," has helped immeasurably.
Yet David is relentless. Kennedy recounts how she kept pushing for a meeting with Roger Ailes, the chairman and CEO of Fox News, which had given lots of airtime to climate change skeptics. Eventually, he says, she convinced Mr. Ailes to air a program about global warming.
It doesn't hurt either that David once worked in the sharp-elbowed world of late night TV as a talent booker for David Letterman. If nothing else, it has made her fluent in the language of the rock world and able to connect with young people. She has teamed up on initiatives with Reverb, a group that enlists musicians to talk about global warming. "She is a tour de force," says Adam Gardner, cofounder of Reverb and a guitarist/vocalist with the rock band Guster.
Not everyone swoons over David. She has been dismissed as a bête noire extremist by Rush Limbaugh, the auto industry, and oil and coal companies. Critics argue she overstates the global-warming threat and preaches the virtues of reducing a carbon footprint from a home in the opulent suburbs. "The American people know when their intelligence is being insulted," said US Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, an ardent global-warming skeptic, in congressional testimony referring to David and other activists. "They know when they are being used and when they are being duped by the hysterical left."
David lives in a big house in upscale Pacific Palisades, and she occasionally flies in private jets. But she is committed to shrinking her own impact on the atmosphere. She doesn't believe Americans must adopt a neo-Luddite existence to help curb global warming. "Each of us can do more every day," she says. "For now, it's the little stuff that can make a big difference."
In the David household, that means low-flow showerheads and toilets, biodegradable toilet paper, and turning off lights. In the summer, the family retreats to Martha's Vineyard, where David often hosts "educational" dinners that bring together scientists, politicians, and celebrities, whom she leans on to get involved.
Two budding activists influenced by David are Christina and Jeffrey Lurie, owners of the Philadelphia Eagles. They founded "Go Green," which has brought discussions about energy efficiency and carbon footprints to football management. "My goal is to be able to buy all of the energy that powers the stadium and team facilities from clean energy sources," says Ms. Lurie.
Kennedy shares a letter he sent to David. It features a famous quote from Abraham Lincoln upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin": "So you're the little lady who started this big war."
David, for her part, says she's not interested in pulling America apart or the glitter of Oscars. More than anything, she wants citizen action against global warming to spur commitments from candidates in the presidential campaign. "I believe we are nearing a tipping point," she says. "I think we can push this over the top."