Earth 2100 Sizzles

ABC News’s two-hour special finally out of the frying pan, into the fire

On Tuesday night, ABC News aired a two-hour special called Earth 2100, describing the potentially apocalyptic scene that could await us at the end of the century.

The network abandoned cautious storytelling, opting instead to portray “the worst-case scenario for human civilization… if we fail to seriously address the complex problem of climate change, resource depletion and overpopulation,” as executive producer Michael Bicks described it on ABC’s Web site.

The program, which attracted nearly 3.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen, wove comics-style illustrations of a ruined landscape, the fictional life story of a woman named Lucy living in said landscape, and interviews from some of the world’s leading climate experts.

Online message boards and list-servs soon erupted with questions about the scientific validity of Earth 2100’s predictions and the overall effectiveness of the show. Many viewers were weary of the shock-factor incorporated into the story—constant war, pandemics, food shortages, etc. While many climate scientists agree that these are distinct possibilities for the future, there is very little consensus about the timing, severity, and location of these outcomes. As such, several commenters cried “fear mongering.”

With ABC posing hyperbolic and truly unhelpful questions such as, “Is this the final century of our civilization,” that is fair criticism. To its credit, however, the network posted annotated transcripts (an excellent technique that also been employed by Climate Central, which contributes to the News Hour) of the program explaining the sources for each prediction, scenario, and statement.

“The scenarios in Earth 2100 are not a prediction of what will happen but rather a warning about what might happen,” Bicks wrote on the ABC News Web site. “Though there is some disagreement about the specifics, there is a widespread agreement… that if we do not change course in the near future, the collapse of our civilization is a real possibility.”

Those caveats must have allayed some criticism as, all in all, most viewers seemed to have had relatively positive reactions to the broadcast. Comment boards on both the ABC News Web site and other media sites noted the effectiveness and creativity of using illustrations and a fictional character to depict the climate predictions. Several posters pleaded to know when the program would be re-aired or put online in its entirety. Still others congratulated ABC for devoting a two-hour, prime-time spot to the issue.

The media has been relatively quiet about the program. Other than some initial advertising for Earth 2100 in entertainment sections and green blogs, the conversation about the broadcast has been almost entirely limited to online comment boards.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Earth 2100 has been its evolution over the past few years. According to project’s original press release, Earth 2100 was meant to be an “unprecedented television and Internet event.” The key word there is Internet. ABC originally launched Earth 2100 as a “crowd sourcing” project where ABC viewers could submit personal videos online about what they thought life would be like in 2015, 2050, and 2100. The idea was then to cobble that together into Web-based, narrative description of the consequences of population growth, resource depletion, and climate change for society and the planet. The project’s original Web site (which has been disabled, unfortunately) centered on an interactive map where visitors could watch video stories from contributors around the world.

Last summer and fall, users slowly began to post submissions on the Web site, most of which contained camera footage reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project. Then came the delays. Originally, Earth 2100 was set to air in September 2008. Then ABC pushed it back until Spring 2009 (which, Bicks explained when CJR first contacted him in April, was due to personal reasons). Now, over a year after the project’s first call for video submissions, Earth 2100 went from an innovative, interactive multimedia event to a more typical television news special.

This raises an interesting question: Does the failure of Earth 2100’s Web-based, community journalism experiment represent the limitations of the seemingly limitless world of multimedia/Internet reporting? If so, was it the subject matter or the scope of the effort that got ABC into trouble? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Katherine Bagley is a science, environment and health journalist based in New York City. She is currently working as a reporter for Audubon Magazine.