(Press play, above, to watch the video)
I’ll admit I was dubious. The idea of celebrities saving the planet hasn’t really worked so far, probably because they provoke cynicism and tend to end up being the focus of the debate, taking the conversation away from the issue they are representing. This, combined with the slick videography and high production values, made me very sceptical that this new series by Showtime would come close to making a dent in the attitudes of most people on climate change.
Hell, the website features Harrison Ford hugging a baby orangutan, and the first episode opens with Ford in a fighter jet collecting air samples! But in the end I was impressed. Really, really impressed.
Episode one features three stories told by scientists, activists, and real people, with each story investigated, or heard, by actors Harrison Ford and Don Cheadle, and New York Times journalist Thomas L. Friedman. And it works.
Ford is sent off to Indonesia to talk about deforestation and corruption, with a particular focus on Sumatra. He fumes with intensity and righteous indignation as the bare, scolded earth that was once primary rainforest inside a national park smoulders beneath him, freshly burned, illegally, for illegal oil palm plantations to be established in plain view of the authorities. His last words in the episode: “I cannot wait to talk to the Minister of Forestry”. As someone well versed in these issues in Indonesia, I cannot wait to see it!
Deforestation is linked to around 17% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, and Indonesia accounts for half of those emissions. Let’s spell that out: deforestation in Indonesia accounts for 6-8% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.
Cheadle is excellent, reporting on the ongoing droughts in Texas. He meets cattle ranchers and people who have lost their jobs due to the crisis. He’s in a dying town called Plainview. But what he’s really here to do is to begin to build bridges with the conservative, religious right in America. The people he meets, who have lost almost everything to climate change, believe in Gods plan and natural cycles and are very sceptical of scientists. Here, the show excels.
They put a conservative, devoutly Christian climate scientist (who is also married to a preacher) centre stage, and show her speaking to normal people in a way that they can understand. Because she shares their values and beliefs, the audience can accept her arguments without feeling as though they are betraying their political and religious identities. It works, and could be a huge moment in helping climate campaigners reach out to people on the right who equate climate change with liberal elitism.
Friedman, I guess, is there to give the show a bit more credibility, so that it’s not just celebrities. He goes to war torn Syria to meet with rebel fighters, and to hear their stories. He’s making the link between climate change and war, with the fighters and their families arguing that it was the government’s response to prolonged drought that radicalised a lot of the fighters. The film ends with Friedman quoting one of the fighters who calls the crisis in Syria “a war of the hungry”. Friedman is sombre and understated, which gives the piece more power and gravity than it might otherwise.
It’s a show that’s clearly aimed at an American audience, but that’s an audience that needs convincing on this issue. Recognising the reality of economic insecurity from drought and wars in the middle east might begin to bring people on the right into the conversation, while the liberals were fed opportunities for moral outrage at the illegal destruction of pristine rainforest, sympathy toward devastated Syrian families, and smugness (and maybe even a little bit of compassion) toward those who haven’t yet accepted the science.
All three stories avoid cliché, hype, melodrama, or anything else that turns people off and undermines the argument. They are sensitive and serious. They make sense, and they might represent the slow turning of a monumental tide.
I’m looking forward to these stories being developed, and I hope that they can maintain the same level of debate, the same tone of seriousness, the same respect and compassion for the audience. But I’m also really looking forward to seeing Harrison Ford stick it to the Indonesian Minister of Forestry!
You can find out more about the show, the science, and the people involved at the Years of Living Dangerously website.
Did you watch it? What did you think? Let me know below in the comments.
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