Walking the public opinion tightrope

Early reception of a celebrity-packed Showtime documentary demonstrates the difficulty of engaging audiences on climate change

The first episode of Years of Living Dangerously, Showtime’s mammoth documentary series on climate change that premiered Sunday night, is every bit as riveting as its celebrity-laced cast would suggest. In the first hour of the nine-part series, Harrison Ford journeys into an Indonesian jungle, gauging the effects of massive deforestation; Don Cheadle shuttles across Texas narrating the crippling job loss brought on by drought and sitting through presentations of an evangelical climate scientist pushing for religious populations to accept global warming; Thomas Friedman travels to a refugee camp, tracing whether conflicts in Syria might be a side effect of drought.

These are emotional, human stories—the kinds of narratives rarely linked to coverage of climate change. And spanning economics, politics, and science, they are every bit as ambitious as one might expect from a documentary that aims, through star power, storytelling, and sheer force of will, to push climate change onto the national agenda.

In January I wrote a long piece covering the show’s producers’ efforts to create a comprehensive and engaging series on a topic that is hard to make compelling—because of the abstract nature of the science and the caveats required to link it to the weather events that connect to human stories. At the time, Years’ producers were counting on their celebrity correspondents drive interest in the subject, not just because of their charisma and fame, but because of their ignorance—as the celebrities travel through each episode, they gain information and insights along with the viewer.

In action, their correspondents’ moments of learning and questioning are some of the most powerful in the film. Before traveling to Texas, Don Cheadle questions the distance between his ideas of climate change and those of the rest of the country, from his chrome-clad Los Angeles kitchen. Later, during a lecture by atmospheric science professor Katherine Hayhoe on how to merge the science of climate change and religion, with its propensity to attribute such acts to god, the camera pans out to Cheadle’s inquisitive face, and one assumes he is asking himself similar questions.

There are moments of bravura, for sure—the first episode ends on a cliffhanger where a heated Harrison Ford, after spending a day looking at Indonesia’s dilapidated forests, heads off to talk to the Indonesian Forest Minister. If you read the news, you know that their chat doesn’t go well.

And perhaps, in part, because of the difficulty of telling a cinematic stories about climate change, early reviews of Years have been exuberant. The Guardian called it “perhaps the most important climate change multimedia communication endeavor in history,” while The New York Times’ television critic, Mike Hale, praised its use of celebrity, pointing out that “when it comes to livening up environmental reporting, you can’t beat Mr. Ford in a boat in Borneo.” In a separate Times review, Andrew Revkin called the documentary a “compellingly fresh approach,” demonstrating the science, human narratives, and “perhaps most important — revealing the roots of the polarizing divisions in society over this issue.”

But opinion on the subject is too diverse for a pure rave, as shown by an op-ed in the Times written by representatives of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research organization. Titled, “Global Warming Scare Tactics,” the authors argued the drama that the series so carefully cultivates is actually driving the public away from accepted science. “Environmental groups have known since 2000 that efforts to link climate change to natural disasters could backfire, after researchers at the Frameworks Institute studied public attitudes for its report ‘How to Talk About Global Warming,’” reads the op-ed. “Messages focused on extreme weather events, they found, made many Americans more likely to view climate change as an act of God—something to be weathered, not prevented.” The piece goes on to cite a recent Gallup poll showing that the number of Americans who believe the media exaggerates global warming has grown from 34 percent to 42 percent since 2006.

A letter to the editor from the Years’ co-creators, confirms that stories about climate-change solutions will air later in the week and argues that the stories on climate change effects serve an important purpose. “The public still believes that there is significant disagreement among scientists on climate. We dispel that myth in our series.”

Stories about climate change without human narratives fail for the same reason that global warming journalism has struggled to connect with an audience—human narratives make compelling journalism. A few weeks ago, when the AAAS released a comprehensive report about climate change, the authors were criticized for failing to connect the science of climate change to compelling or dramatic stories. It’s a topic that lends no easy answers, or easy audiences, and Years, with two consulting climate scientists, is as well equipped as anyone to tread such tricky territory. But we shouldn’t be too quick to judge Years: There are still 8 more episodes of left to air and, potentially, future seasons left to film. The producers of Years may not be able to win, but you have to give them credit for trying.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , , , , ,