Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt: Jane Fonda's role in global warming

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

[Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt are the authors of “Freakonomics.” More information on the research behind this column is online at]

If you were asked to name the biggest global-warming villains of the past 30 years, here’s one name that probably wouldn’t spring to mind: Jane Fonda. But should it?

In the movie “The China Syndrome,” Fonda played a California TV reporter filming an upbeat series about the state’s energy future. While visiting a nuclear power plant, she sees the engineers suddenly panic over what is later called a “swift containment of a potentially costly event.” When the plant’s corporate owner tries to cover up the accident, Fonda’s character persuades one engineer to blow the whistle on the possibility of a meltdown that could “render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.”

“The China Syndrome” opened on March 16, 1979. With the no-nukes protest movement in full swing, the movie was attacked by the nuclear industry as an irresponsible act of leftist fear-mongering. Twelve days later, an accident occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in south-central Pennsylvania.

Michael Douglas, a producer and co-star of the film — he played Fonda’s cameraman — watched the T.M.I. accident play out on the real TV news, which interspersed live shots from Pennsylvania with eerily similar scenes from “The China Syndrome.” While Fonda was firmly anti-nuke before making the film, Douglas wasn’t so dogmatic. Now he was converted on the spot. “It was a religious awakening,” he recalled in a recent phone interview. “I felt it was God’s hand.”

Fonda, meanwhile, became a full-fledged crusader. In a retrospective interview on the DVD edition of “The China Syndrome,” she notes with satisfaction that the film helped persuade at least two other men — the father of her then-husband, Tom Hayden, and her future husband, Ted Turner — to turn anti-nuke. “I was ecstatic that it was extremely commercially successful,” she said. “You know the expression ‘We had legs’? We became a caterpillar after Three Mile Island.”...

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