climate climate change

Educational TV on Pay Cable: Years of Living Dangerously Screening at OFA

Friday, August 22, 2014 Rob Samuelson

When someone can explain and show you how something works, you tend to believe them. The basics of climate change are thus: humans burn fossil fuels – coal, oil, etc. – and the carbon they emit stays in the atmosphere, acting as a shield, an added layer of insulation, so sunlight cannot properly bounce off the planet's surface and return to space naturally. This warms the planet. Ice caps melt. Sea levels rise. Storms worsen. Droughts go on for years. People get displaced from the homes of their ancestors. Wars for resources, like water, commence. On and on until, if season five of Fringe is to be believed, our bald, time traveling descendants come back to enslave us and take our resources. Do you want to be owned by this guy?!

That hysteria at the end of the preceding paragraph is fairly common in discussions of climate change. Many who believe in it, as the science indicates they should, go overboard in their rhetoric – with people like NASA's James Hansen calling the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline “game over for the climate,” calls for a radical return to a small agrarian society, etc. – that can backfire badly if proven to be anything less than the apocalypse, regardless of any real pain inflicted on the world. Those who are naturally skeptical, those who have skin in the fossil fuel game, people who believe a benevolent deity would never harm them the way the science indicates, they are then invited to say, “See? There's nothing wrong,” or, “It's not as bad as you said,” and point to the climate advocates as sanctimonious fear mongers rather than people who are unable to properly frame their arguments. An impasse happens. Each side calls the other idiots, partisanship reigns, and television news, with its penchant to highlight the loudest rather than wisest bits of discourse, takes advantage of both by turning possibly today's most serious global issue into a petty “he said, she said” disagreement not unlike an episode of Judge Judy.

Former 60 Minutes producer David Gelber saw these arguments and thought this subject deserved better. He felt, after working on a climate story for his former employer, that this is indeed a grave issue, but it does not need to mean the end times are upon us. Nor does he give much credence to those who deny the science for personal or political gain. He thinks there is a vast middle ground for communication, education, and decision making about what to actually do about the problem, rather than inane arguments about its existence.

So he co-created a documentary series on Showtime and called it Yearsof Living Dangerously. He's traveled the country and the world to showcase his work. This week he stopped by President Obama's former campaign headquarters, since rebranded Organizing for Action, located in Chicago's River North neighborhood, to screen an episode and have a robust discussion with gathered climate activists, members of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and advocates for various forms of renewable energy.

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The episode Gelber screened, the series' third, features liberal MSNBC host Chris Hayes following conservative congressman Michael Grimm as he struggles with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in his home district, Staten Island, New York. Grimm begins the episode a climate change denier, saying familiar things like, “The science isn't settled yet.” But months of struggling to secure disaster relief from the federal government, a conversation with former Republican congressman and climate change believer, Bob Inglis, and the constant bevy of evidence before him change Grimm's mind about the existence of global warming.

But, in a frustrating moment of weak-willed self-preservation – the House of Representatives is filled with Republicans who don't publicly believe the science, but they do believe plenty of their constituents will punish them if they break with the “global warming is a hoax” orthodoxy – Grimm says that, while he believes the climate has changed and human beings are part of the cause, he does not believe his generation, Gen X, or mine, the Millennials, have the will to do anything about it. As may be expected, this boiled the blood of the activists and assorted members of those generations who surrounded me at the screening.

Gelber says these personal stories – characters, arcs, themes, open-ended resolutions – help an audience better swallow the pill of such a monumental problem.

I think we've figured out ways to tell stories about climate,” he says, suggesting that the classic shrill denier on the right, shrill activist on the left cable news interview dichotomy is thankfully ending.

It's terribly upsetting” we don't have better climate coverage in the media, Gelber says before paraphrasing a common climate change saying that if 98 doctors told you to do something (a reference to the 97 or 98 percent of climate scientists who say the environment is changing and at risk), then why would you unwaveringly believe the two who tell you the opposite?

"This is a transcendently important story," he says, because of the way it has been covered in the past and its real stakes.

Gelber says he thinks messaging on the side of science is a big reason for the boomerang effect on skeptics. He mentions the charts and graphs of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and Leonardo Di Caprio's awards show preaching by name.

Nobody wants to hear from a Hollywood 'expert' on climate change,” he says.

This gave Gelber and his collaborators, including filmmaker James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the idea to show famous non-experts to go on learning expeditions to discover the changing climate's economic impact on drying towns in Texas, how deforestation works as a way of “burning the candle at both ends,” and other things related to climate science. They act as the audience's guide. People like Don Cheadle, Jessica Alba, Harrison Ford, and more appeared in season one, with more planned for a second season that will air during the run-up to the 2016 election.

Gelber says the timing for season two is no accident. He points out that there was not a single question asked about climate change during any of the three 2012 presidential debates. He calls it a failure on the media's part. He says he sees it as the show's responsibility to elevate the conversation and make the climate change debate a momentous one as the United States determines its next leader in two years' time, because sea level rise and storms put entire American regions on the line.

“At this point, I don't think South Florida's salvageable,” he says.

But there are things Americans, and the rest of the world, can do to improve conditions after they educate themselves through things like this show.

“If we don't get down to business on this, we're going to be in terrible shape,” he says with an evenhandedness that belies calmness, without a hint of shrillness. That sober accounting of the stakes, after years of talking to people who have spent their entire adult lives researching the subject, should give people pause when they think about denying the results of their data.

The first episode of Years of Living Dangerously is available to watch for free on YouTube, courtesy of parent network Showtime.  The first season will be available on Blu-Ray and DVD next month.

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