Huffpost Green

Justin Rowlatt, "Ethical Man," Studies Climate Conscience In America

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NEW YORK — Pouring buckets of chocolate bars _ 855 in all _ on a stage seems an odd way to make a point about global warming. But Justin Rowlatt is not a typical environmental journalist.

The British reporter known back home as "Ethical Man" spent six weeks traveling 6,500 miles (10,460 kilometers) across the United States on public transportation for stories on climate change. His reports are airing on BBC America's "BBC World News America" as well as in England.

"Ethical Man" _ a title he is not particularly fond of _ came from a series of BBC reports three years ago. Rowlatt, his wife and three children spent a year trying to reduce their "carbon footprint," doing such things as getting rid of their car, changing how they heated their home and briefly going vegan.

"It was kind of a marriage between reality TV _ how will the family respond to this sort of thing? _ with genuine inquiring journalism," he said.

And it gave him a chance to have a little fun. The BBC illustrated the family's loss of a car by showing one being blown up, fortunately not Rowlatt's. He wandered into a muddy field with cows holding a microphone when he talks about becoming a vegan.

Some of the family's new habits stuck; they still don't own a car or use the dryer, for instance. But Rowlatt and his wife were disappointed, after a year, that they only reduced their carbon footprint by about 20 percent.

"It was obvious that individuals alone can't do it," he said. "We were nowhere near a solution. And that's why we wanted to come to America, to explore these larger questions about what we can do as a society. America was kind of the obvious place to go because America has the kind of lifestyle to which everyone in the world aspires."

Rome Hartman, executive producer of "BBC World News America," had seen many of Rowlatt's "Ethical Man" reports. He wasn't interested in duplicating the idea with someone else, but did believe Rowlatt's style would translate well.

"On a subject where there is plenty of pomposity to go around, I think he's a pretty unpompous guy," Hartman said.

The chocolate bars were Rowlatt's way of grabbing attention in Muskegon, Michigan, where he began his journey. The calories in the candy were meant to be equivalent to the units of energy used each day by the average American. He went ice-fishing with a local resident and, between the jokes about falling in the water, made the point that the local lake doesn't freeze to the extent it did 20 or 30 years ago.

If anything, his reports err on the side of too much comedy at the expense of information. And the next producer who cues up "Born to Be Wild" when someone sits on a motorcycle deserves a month's suspension.

"That's always a risk," Hartman said. "That's kind of in the eye of the beholder. One man's gimmick is another man's really good way of explaining something."

Rowlatt said there's a perception elsewhere in the world that Americans don't really care much about the issue. He found that consistently not to be the case, and found small examples of people trying to make a difference. He was surprised to find that on one of his train trips halfway across the country, actress Daryl Hannah was on the same trip, believing it to be a more environmentally friendly mode of travel.

While he enjoys his work, Rowlatt finds the nickname "Ethical Man" can be a burden. When he had to take a plane ride once for another story, a fellow passenger scolded him.

"It has its downsides, there's no question," he said. "You can imagine if I was caught doing something unethical or hideously embarrassing, you're setting yourself up for a fall."

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