For Climate Action, persuading my dad about climate change

LeRoy Ettling and his son Brian Ettling. Photo taken on March 31, 2014.

(Note: This is an updated version of two of my previous writings. First, my guest blog from my friend Harriet Shugarman‘s website climatemama.comMy 2015 guest blog for that website was Talking to Your Parents about Climate Change: A Personal Story. Second, a blog I wrote for my website on January 28, 2022, Talking to Your Dad about Climate Change: My Personal Story)

24 years ago, journalist Bill Moyers interviewed movie director George Lucas about how Lucas came up with the Star Wars movies. In this interview, George Lucas explained how it was actually his father’s dream for George to work in and eventually inherit the family office equipment store in Modesto, California.

However, George had no interest in taking over his father’s business. He decided in college that he wanted to be a filmmaker. When George decided to go to the University of Southern California film school and pursue his dream, his dad felt crushed that George was not going to take over the family business.

George Sr. felt young George was making a huge mistake because he had built up this successful business for his son to eventually take over. It was a big source of friction between them until George Sr. saw son George’s huge success with the Star Wars films.

George said his dad was very proud of his achievements as a filmmaker. George told Bill Moyers “the only thing you have to do, in the end, if you have to accomplishment one thing in life, is to make your parents proud of you. If you are healthy and you can take care of yourself, and you are a good person…one who contributes to society and does not take away….that’s all your parents really want in the end.”

I loved this story because my Dad and I are both big fans of the original Star Wars movies. When I was a kid, almost 12 years old, let me share one of my best memories of my Dad. He went out of his way to buy tickets to surprise us so our entire family could see the much-anticipated Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, on opening day on May 21, 1980. This film is still one of my favorite movies of all time. (Spoiler Alert) It became a cultural icon when Darth Vader announced to Luke Skywalker: “I am your father!”

I will never forget this gift from my Dad because there was an audible gasp from the movie audience when Darth Vader said that. At that moment, no one wanted to believe that plot twist. It took years for me to accept it. The actor James Earl Jones, who played the voice of Darth Vader, thought the character was lying, when he first read the script for the film.

On the car ride home from the movie theater, I felt sick to my stomach. I could not comprehend that the good guys in the Star Wars film had been defeated. I will never forget my Dad lovingly explain the theatrical concept of a cliffhanger. He gleefully recognized it from the 1950s serial B films that he enjoyed as a boy. He assured me that the Star Wars characters would be alright. George Lucas was just setting us up to see the next Star Wars film in three years. That was one of my favorite childhood conversations with my Dad that these characters and I would be ok.

Since Darth Vader was the villain in those Star Wars films until Luke redeems him, George Lucas said that the original Star Wars trilogy films is ultimately a space soap opera about a father and son relationship. As mentioned above, George Lucas struggled with the relationship with his father. I certainly struggled in the relationship with my Dad.

When I graduated from college in 1992, I decided to become a seasonal park ranger bouncing around national parks. This disappointed my dad for years. He asked me several times, “When are you going to get a real job?”

To compound my Dad’s disappointment, I made it my life’s mission to write, teach and give public presentations about the impacts of climate change, which I witnessed first-hand and up close, through my work as a park ranger in the Florida Everglades and Crater Lake National Park, Oregon. For my dad, it was initially beyond his comprehension that humans could damage our planet. As I became more aware of climate change and began my work as a climate change activist, my Dad displayed open hostility at my life choice. He tried telling me that: ‘climate change was not real, that humans cannot change the climate’, and this is a bunch of nonsense.’

However, like George Lucas, I found my passion in life, and nothing was going to stop me. There was no looking back. In the spring of 2010, I put together this website and my first climate change PowerPoint presentation to share with friends. In August 2011, I delivered my first climate change evening program as a seasonal park ranger at Crater Lake.

In August 2012, I attended a training in San Francisco along with nearly 1,000 other people led by Al Gore to become a Climate Reality Leader to give presentations on climate change. Since that training, I have given over 270 climate change presentations in 12 U.S. states, Washington D.C. and Ottawa, Canada. Some personal highlights are when I was a guest presenter for NASA in Hampton, Virginia in 2012, a guest speaker at Grand Canyon National Park in 2013, and a presenter for the Oregon Wild Conference in Portland, Oregon in 2014.

I attempted every avenue I know to get out the message about taking action on climate change, including writing a blog since 2011, writing opinion editorials in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Oregonian starting in 2013, doing local radio interviews, and in 2014, making funny short videos with my wife (then girlfriend) Tanya and my mom Fran Ettling.

My dad also played a role in our videos, as my cameraperson. After filming our third video in January 2015, my dad seemed to get antsy behind the camera and he told me he wanted to be in front of the camera with me. I decided to take him up on his suggestion, and to see where this would lead.

In February 2015, my dad and I filmed our first climate video together. I interviewed him about how he had changed his mind about climate change. He explained to me that it was me, his son, who had changed his mind. I had helped him understand and see the weight of the evidence before us. Over the years, I watched a shift in my dad’s thinking, and I gained a new respect and admiration for him. He evolved from being hostile about my climate activism to being my biggest cheerleader. Yet, as I was making this video with my dad, I kept thinking how crazy this idea would have been 10 years before.

These short YouTube videos that I did with my parents and Tanya caught the attention of Comedy Central’s Tosh.o TV show. A year later, a producer of the show called me to invite my Mom and I to fly to Los Angeles to do a comedy segment with the show’s host, Daniel Tosh. Our comedy segment first aired Comedy Central on August 2, 2016. It’s called “The Climate Change Comedian – Web Redemption.” The cool thing about this segment is that a very short clip of my Dad was included, so my Dad had a brief moment on TV using comedy to promote climate change awareness.

My parents’ support of my climate change communication efforts did not stop there. Around that same time in 2016, my Mom came home to tell me a story. They attended a party at the home of one of their friends. The host of the party remarked, ‘I think that climate change is a bunch of nonsense.’

My Mom responded, “That’s interesting. Can I show you a video?”

My Mom then showed the YouTube video of my Dad and I talking about how I changed his thinking on climate change. My Mom said that the host of the party was silent and did not say another word about climate change for the rest of the party.

In December 2023, Tanya and I flew to St. Louis to be with our families for the holidays. During this visit, my Dad went out of his way to tell me how proud he is of me and what I have accomplished with my life. I am so happy I made him proud because he used to be my worst critic.

I think George Lucas is correct. Our parents may seem like Darth Vader, but deep down, they really are proud of us.

LeRoy Ettling and his son Brian Ettling. Photo taken on March 31, 2014.