Feature documentaries often end up preaching to the choir, as they tend to draw an audience already interested in the subject. That’s one of the reasons the makers of the global warming series “Years of Living Dangerously” opted to bring it to television, maximizing the audience far beyond the movie box office.
Telling its globally focused stories over nine series hours allowed them to cover many aspects of the issue, exploring its impact and consequences with a contingent of committed actors and journalists acting as correspondents. There are big guns behind the scenes, too: the production team includes James Cameron, Jerry Weintraub, Arnold Schwarzenegger (who also appears in the series), and Daniel Abbasi, who brings considerable experience in climate change to the project. Abbasi (pictured right) shared his insights with MNN.
MNN: How did you get involved with the project?
Daniel Abbasi: Joel and David already had a lot of the elements in mind. I’d been involved in the climate change issue for a long time. I was working at Mission Point Capital Partners to help people do carbon investing. They’d left “60 Minutes,” and I was thinking about what was next as well. And we talked about how we could raise the money for this.
What experience in the environmental sector do you bring to it?
I’m not a climate scientist myself but I spend a lot of time with them. I was at the Environmental Protection Agency, in the policy office. I was appointed because I worked on the Clinton-Gore campaign, and in the course of that work I talked to a lot of scientists. I was the associate dean at the Yale school of forestry and environmental studies and worked on climate issues there. I now serve on the U.S. National Climate Assessment and we help scientists do and review their work. On the series, I weighed in on the science, the politics of the issue, the policy.
What do you think is the most pressing climate change issue?
There’s a diversity of manifestations, but they all stem from the burning of fossil fuels, the deforestation, particularly in the tropical belts. Indonesia is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the U.S., where it’s because of industry; in Indonesia it’s because of deforestation. We need to dramatically reduce emissions. We have to have electricity generation that is de-carbonized, like solar and wind. People are already being impacted and not just those on the fringes of society, in a very serious way, people who are the least able to cope and have the least resources to relocate or alternatively source their food. We must reduce emissions and we can’t leave it to the politicians — that’s one of our big messages here. We want Americans to be part of the conversation, to speak to their elected officials at all levels of government. People need to feel empowered, feel their voice on this.
What specific stories does the series cover?
There’s the question of climate change and the question of human causation. We see storms, food crop issues, tropical disease outbreaks moving more northerly. Harrison Ford looks at the evidence of and impact of deforestation in Indonesia. They burn trees for the purpose of palm oil production, sending a lot of it to countries that claim to be environmentally focused. So there’s a bit of an exposé quality to it. He goes into national parks where there wasn’t supposed to be deforestation, and there is. He has some very dramatic moments interacting with ministers in power there. Matt Damon had just done “Promised Land” about natural gas fracking and he has the Water.org connection, but he ended up doing a story on heat waves in Los Angeles. It’s the biggest killer in terms of weather, not many people realize that. Hurricanes are more dramatic but heat waves affect the elderly, people who are vulnerable, poor populations without air conditioning. Jessica Alba’s story, the Environmental Defense Fund has a program called the Climate Corps where they recruit and select from a pool of MBA students to go out and green enterprises. She goes with them. Lesley Stahl goes to the Arctic and looks at the impact of what’s going on there including the race for resources.
Some on the political right see global warming as a liberal conspiracy. How did that happen?
In the '90s, during the Clinton/Gore administration, the issue, unfortunately, did become quite politicized between Democrats and Republicans. Obviously Vice President Al Gore was a big proponent of action on this as, ultimately, was President Clinton. When the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in 1997 and there was an attempt to get that passed and ratified in the Senate, it became even more politicized. We've really never dug our way out of that. Our hope is that this show will be able to transcend that, because what we're doing is we're putting a human face on this. Politics are covered, but the path into the story is through people that are experiencing this, the questions they're asking, the events they’re seeing. I’m convinced that climate change is real, human‑caused, and that we need urgent action. But we wanted to galvanize a conversation in America, and that means getting everybody into it.
Was this series always going to premiere around Earth Day or was it coincidence?
A bit of both. We follow people in the series of a sustained period of time for over a year. These are not snapshots on the evening news. We knew we wanted to air in the first half of 2014 and April and Earth Day seemed like a good fit.
What are the plans for spreading the word?
There will be a companion website that will provide supplemental information about the stories, solutions and ways for people to act on them. One of our funders is Paul Allen and his production company is involved in developing social change initiatives and partnerships around this with the website that will carry out into the real world. We’re thinking about ways to empower viewers of the series to hold leaders accountable. It’s very hard to think a single individual can be affective on something of this scale. We’ll have a ladder of engagement, starting with discussion on a Facebook page, and I don’t underestimate that. For issues to move, people have to be comfortable talking about them, so you create at the lower level some easy ways to get into the issue. There’s a lot of awareness about climate change and a level of concern but some people don’t feel comfortable talking about it. So we want to expose people to the real world impacts in our series. We personalize it. Then they can ask not just government leaders but corporate leaders and educators, “What are you doing about this issue?” What we want to do is galvanize the conversation.
What do you hope audiences take away, and be motivated to do?
What we’re trying to do here is put a human face on an issue that’s often perceived as abstract or remote. We’re saying climate change is here now; it affects flesh-and-blood people. Polling shows that the majority of people now think it’s real, across red and blue states, but we need to ramp up the urgency a little bit, prioritize it a little more, make people understand what they can do and go out and do it. The hope here is that viewers will see people who look like their neighbors so it will be less abstract. If it gets them more viscerally, they get engaged. These are human stories about people grappling with big issues. It’s also really good investigative journalism and storytelling. I think it’s a genre bender in some ways. We hope people will watch. This story has legs and unfortunately we’ll be living with it for a while, but hopefully we’ll turn a corner and we’d like to be a part of that.
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