With Weintraub’s name, raising money proved easier than Gelber or Bach had anticipated. They set a fundraising goal of $15 million. Their first million came quickly, from the commercial realtor Rena Shulsky David and the investor Jeremy Grantham. Another lucky break landed them a meeting with James Cameron, who as it happened had been looking to put his weight behind a piece of climate-change journalism. Over breakfast in Malibu, Cameron agreed to be an executive producer under the condition that the project increase the size of its Web and social-media campaign. In other words, it couldn’t just be a piece of journalism; it had to aim to influence national policy.
Bach returned from Los Angeles elated. “I said to my wife: ‘We have Jerry Weintraub, James Cameron, and a million bucks—can I quit my job now?’ ” They left 60 Minutes in April 2011.
Though the eventual effects of climate change are dramatic—nothing less than the fate of the world and all its inhabitants—it does not translate easily to storytelling. Narrative is elusive because most causes of climate change, in the form of carbon emissions, are invisible, as are the slowly accumulating consequences. Understanding the severity of global warming requires peeking into the future, through scientific studies and predictive modeling. But the science of climate change is a complicated, interdisciplinary mix not often credited with tugging on heartstrings. “It’s fundamentally a problem that has been described in a foreign language,” explained Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. “I mean, radiative forcings, what is that?”
It also works contrary to how humans experience fear, which kicks in most viscerally for immediate threats. Climate change, with consequences that are distant, lacks the clear villain that stories about, say, terrorism hinge on. “You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology,” said Leiserowitz. Traditionally, journalists have grounded the climate beat by reporting on its effects—melting icebergs and extreme weather events, like heat waves—though they are only tangentially connected to climate change. Probability modeling shows that climate change makes extreme weather events increasingly likely, but it doesn’t allow scientists to link any individual event to global warming—and what compelling nut graf has ever relied on probability?
According to tracking from the University of Colorado’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, news coverage of climate change has dropped steadily since 2009, and that coverage is largely limited to special-interest reporting: the science-and-environment ghetto.
Gelber told me he often wonders how to get the public to take action, “not just polar bear-ize” the issue. But massive change doesn’t come without a movement, which, so far, climate change has failed to inspire. “If only I could get the media to care half as much about global warming as twerking,” he told me, his voice trailing off.
Gelber likes to tell an anecdote about the first time he used a celebrity to draw interest to a subject, on a 60 Minutes segment in 1988. The Natural Resources Defense Council had pitched Gelber a complicated story about a chemical used to grow apples. He didn’t think the network would go for a dry story, until the NRDC offered Meryl Streep as a spokeswoman. He filmed the segment with Streep, who was “stunning—you just have to look at this woman,” Gelber said. He screened the piece for Don Hewitt, who loved it, with a caveat. “He just said, ‘What the fuck is she doing in the story?’ ” said Gelber. “I had the great honor of being the only producer in history to leave Meryl Streep on the cutting-room floor.” When I point out the irony of the similarity between his current project and this failed project, Gelber notes a difference: “Meryl wasn’t the correspondent, she was the expert.”