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Showtime Series Uses Star Power to Drive Home the Truth About Our Warming World

Can a 60 Minutes-meets-Ocean’s Eleven show on climate change lure viewers away from Don Draper?

A Sunday night primetime television show, a documentary series at that, on climate change — that’s kind of ambitious, wouldn’t you say?

actor Harrison Ford with an orangutanHarrison Ford stirred up quite a flutter during his reporting trip to Indonesia when he bore down upon the country's foreign minister, asking repeatedly nothing was being done to curb illegal logging.

But add in a star cast of Hollywood heroes — Harrison Ford, Jessica Alba, Don Cheadle, and Matt Damon. Mix in some hotshot journalists — The New York Times’ Tom Friedman, CBS’ Lesley Stahl, and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. Have them travel around the country and different parts of the world to report on the causes of global warming, and talk with regular folks who are bearing the brunt of our rapidly changing biosphere— and well, you just might have the right recipe for a crowd-puller.

At least that’s what the producers of Years of Living Dangerously, a nine-part series on climate change that kicks off this Sunday at 10 p.m., are hoping. As are most environmentalists (yours truly, included), who constantly struggle to find ways to communicate the grim fallouts of spewing invisible gases to our atmosphere to a public that’s exposed to a daily dose of climate denialism.

Conceptualized by former 60 Minutes journalists, Joel Bach and David Gelber, the executive producers of the series include Hollywood director James Cameron (of Avatar, Titanic fame), former California Gubernator Arnold Schwarzenegger, producer Jerry Weintraub (Ocean’s Eleven), and clean tech guru Dan Abbasi. The reporting is informed by a crack team of climate scientists, including James Hansen, Michael Mann, Joe Romm, and Dr Heidi Cullen, who described the series as “60 Minutes-meets-Ocean’s Eleven.”  

Actor Dan Cheadle talks with Texans who are facing the brunt of the ongoing drought.Dan Cheadle meets with Texans who are bearing the brunt of the long drought.

The series consist of multiple stories on climate change that play out over the course of nine episodes. Each individual “correspondent” explores a specific impact of our warming world — from Superstorm Sandy to political instability in the Middle East, to melting Arctic ice. The stories also focus on how climate change is affecting the life of everyday Americans and offers some ideas about how they can be part of the solution.

The first episode begins with three stories playing out in different parts of the world. There’s Don Cheadle exploring the vexed issue of climate and religion when he visits a small Texas town where the main source of employment, a meat-packing factory, has closed down because the long drought. There’s an increasingly angry Harrison Ford visiting the peat forests of Indonesia to see how they are being clear cut and set on fire to make way for palm oil plantations. And there’s Tom Friedman trying to get into Syria to find out if climate change has anything to do with the ongoing civil war there. (You can watch the episode free online here.)

Future episodes have Schwarzenegger learning about how forest fires are getting more intense and frequent, Mark Bittman focusing on Superstorm Sandy and the politics of climate change, and Jessica Alba following Climate Corps fellows to see what ideas they are coming up with to make the corporate sector more environmentally friendly.

While a lot of this might sound like old news to most greens, the target here is America’s primetime audience. “The mindset we had was that we wanted to link storytelling to the issue that has somehow not penetrated large sections of the American public,” says executive producer David Gelber.

The producers hope the Hollywood actors, many of who are already involved in environmental issues (Harrison Ford is a board member of Conservation International, Don Cheadle is a UN Environmental Program Global Ambassador, Matt Damon is co-founder of water.org, and Ian Somerhalder runs a foundation that aims to engage youth on environmental issues), and the lavish, Hollywood-style production will attract a wider audience and galvanize a national conversation on climate change.  

Schwarzenegger with a firefighterFormer California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger followed a team of elite “Hot Shot”
firefighters as they faced one of the worst fire seasons in the United States. He has been
receiving some heat from environmentalists for his  financial ties to destructive palm oil
plantations.

“From the get go, the goal was to make it local and personal and to make it clear that these are indeed years of living dangerously … We need to make people see what we are witnessing is actually climate change,” Cullen says.

But The Years of Living Dangerously team-members are also realists. They admit that they aren’t sure if it’s possible to put climate change back on the national agenda through one TV series. “We don’t expect a lot of success in reaching the kind of die -hard deniers, but we do think that it will have an effect on people who are not sure [that climate change is happening] and on people who are already concerned, and increase their involvement,” Gelber says.

Unsurprisingly, the idea of the series itself was a hard sell. The producers hawked the idea to several television outlets for a year before finding a home for it on Showtime. “It is one of the greatest threat to the health and wellbeing of humanity, and the fact that there isn’t a show or network dedicated to climate change is shocking,” fumes Joe Romm, the team’s chief science advisor. Gotta give Showtime its due for taking the project on, but this also means that The Years is going to be hidden behind a pay wall. 

The producers, however, insist that the The Years is not just a TV series. It is, they say, a multimedia communication endeavor. The idea is that the show, which they also hope to release on DVD in September, will drive people to the show’s website, which will provide supplemental information on the subject and also offer a variety of possible actions for people to take. There are plans for an education component from  the National Wildlife Federation, as well as “Massive Open Online Courses” (or MOOC as they are being referred to these days) on climate science and policy.

I got to preview the first two episodes, and I have to admit I was a bit bored by the first one. But it all came together in the second episode in which breaking news events played out while the correspondents were in the field. Deadly forest fires, tense confrontations with corrupt politicians — what can be more emotionally charged and gripping than real life drama?

I do believe The Years of Living Dangerously has the potential to be a game-changer on the scale of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Yes, it faces stiff competition for eyeballs for its first episode this Sunday — it’s also the opening night for Mad Men’s last season after all. Maybe that's why the first espisode is up for free viewing online. But the series is already creating a bit of a buzz beyond the usual green circles and I'm pretty sure that some competition fictional series isn't going to take away from its long term, real-world impact.

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Managing Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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