Discovery Channel reversed course on Tuesday when it announced that it would air all seven parts of a BBC series about Earth’s polar regions, including a final episode about climate change, which it originally said it would forgo.
In mid-November, the BBC drew criticism for giving foreign television networks the option not to buy the final episode, “On Thin Ice,” when purchasing rights to air its latest nature and wildlife series, Frozen Planet. At the time, the Corporation said that over thirty networks had licensed the series, but a third of them, including Discovery Channel, which co-produced Frozen Planet, had opted out.
The Telegraph and the Daily Mail, two British newspapers, suggested that Discovery Channel’s abstention reflected a desire to avoid provoking skeptics of manmade climate change in the US. When the station announced that Frozen Plant would premiere on March 18, 2012, it added that:
The series’ seventh episode, hosted on camera by British naturalist David Attenborough, will investigate what rising temperatures will mean for the people and wildlife that live there - and for the rest of the planet.
The ruckus surprised Discovery executives, who had not screened all of the episodes until last week.
“Up until today we had not made any programming or scheduling decisions, and today we made our announcement,” said Katherine Nelson, Discovery Channel spokeswoman.
The Telegraph predicted that “The airing of the final episode of Frozen Planet will have a huge impact on the ongoing debate about global warming,” although it’s unclear how much of “On Thin Ice” will focus on the impacts of climate change versus mankind’s contribution to climate change.
Media Matters, a liberal watchdog of the conservative press, highlighted a comment that Attenborough, the episode’s narrator, made in a hearing of the UK’s House of Lords regarding governance and regulation of the BBC last May. Asked if it was true that he would make “a big statement regarded as controversial” at the end of Frozen Planet, Attenborough replied:
I don’t believe it’s controversial, the only controversial element in climate change is to what degree it’s anthropocentric, what degree humans have been responsible, but the facts of climate change are scientifically established facts and I don’t think we go beyond that.
The comment does make the eighty-five-year-old documentarian sound a bit wishy-washy on the subject, but Media Matters is undoubtedly making too much of it. Attenborough penned an op-ed for The Independent back in May 2006, in which he acknowledged that he’d been “skeptical about climate change” before going on to say:
Now I do not have any doubt at all. I think climate change is the major challenge facing the world. I have waited until the proof was conclusive that it was humanity changing the climate.
Media Matters also highlighted a comment made during a radio interview by Dr. Mark Brandon, a polar oceanographer at The Open University who served as an academic consultant on the series, in which he said:
If you were to imagine an episode where people just talked about, you know, humans are doing this, humans are doing that, that wouldn’t fit in with the rest of the story. What would make perfect sense if you’re telling the story of the polar regions is to talk about how they’re changing in the context of the animals and the environments that you’ve shown through the previous six hours of episodes.
“On Thin Ice” debuted in the UK on Wednesday night, and reviews were just starting to roll in at press time. According to The Telegraph’s TV critic, James Walton, the episode did, in fact, focus on the impacts of climate change rather than mankind’s contribution thereto. Although the episode started with dire warnings about global warming’s toll on the polar regions, including a shot that cuts to an oil refinery:
The longer the programme went on, though, the clearer it was that Attenborough remains a BBC man to his bootstraps. At times, indeed, the result felt virtually like a parody of the Corporation’s determined commitment to the sort of balance that proves its worth by annoying both sides
Aerial photos of the Arctic showed that between 1980 and 2010, 30 per cent of the sea-ice has disappeared. For thousands of years the Wilkins ice shelf off the Antarctic coast was a solid Yorkshire-sized block, some 200 metres thick. Now it looks like a collection of huge white London Olympics logos.
Even so, the only cause of the melting that Attenborough mentioned was a shift in wind direction. At no point did he suggest any human involvement in climate change - and whenever possible he pointed out the animals that have benefited from the warmer conditions.
The lack of emphasis on human industry’s contribution to climate change is unfortunate, but perhaps viewers should not be too dismayed. An early November article in The Telegraph pointed out Attenborough caught a lot of flak with his last blockbuster series, Planet Earth, for “showing heart-stopping footage of wild creatures without mentioning the threats they faced.” According to the article:
Sir David retorted that “by showing the glories of the world” the series would “help persuade people that this planet is worth saving”
That’s not an unreasonable sentiment. As award-winning science journalist Michelle Nijhuis recently suggested, “It’s not (always) about the Lorax.” That’s a clever way of saying that although, “there’s a lot of genuine tragedy on the environmental beat,” perhaps environmental are too quick to reach for the “bad news” frame when “other-than-tragic” narratives are available.
There is no doubt that the poles face a grave, manmade threat from climate change, but there hasn’t exactly been a shortage of attention to that fact. A lot of people wanted to see Attenborough use his celebrity status to spur the world to action.
“His opinion on this may do for global warming what Walter Cronkite’s opposition to the Vietnam war did to American feelings about our futile involvement in that conflict,” Jerry A. Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, wrote on this blog.
Maybe focusing on the majesty of the Arctic and Antarctic this time around will do.