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“Years of Living Dangerously”: Is This the New Trend?

The media is taking deep dives to communicate science, solutions and the human side of climate change.

(Image: ©Showtime)

Showtime’s new nine-part documentary on climate change features hard-hitting connections between global warming and extreme weather, interviews with expert scientists, and calls for action. Is “Years of Living Dangerously” catching on to a new trend with reporting on climate change?

“Years of Living Dangerously,” the Showtime documentary series produced by Oscar-winning James Cameron and other Hollywood icons, has been heralded as “perhaps the most important climate change multimedia communication endeavor in history.” The nine-part series’ Hollywood filmmakers paired with veterans from CBS’ 60 Minutes (Joel Back and David Gelber), and featured a science advisory board to ensure accuracy, including scientists Heidi Cullen, Jim Hansen, Michael Mann, Michael Oppenheimer, and more. The series seeks to tell “the biggest story of our time” in an emotion-evoking blockbuster format, as a way to “close the gap” between science and action.

The April 13 series premiere came one week after NBC’s deep-dive special on climate change, and both are sorely needed. Even as top reports are showing that the issue is becoming a dire threat that calls for immediate action, a Pew Research poll indicates that Americans continue to rank addressing climate change as a low priority. Social science research suggests that how people rank the importance of various issues is a direct result of media coverage of the issue. In an interview with National Journal, Media Matters Executive Vice President Angelo Carusone stated that the recent large-scale expositions on global warming are a reflection of “the hollowness of the overall landscape and the anxieties around the inaction starting to percolate and feeding a demand to end this endless debate,” adding that “[w]hen a major network devotes that much time to it, it shows they’re responding to a demand.” “Years of Living Dangerously” and NBC’s climate special both work to reverse the attitude of apathy, by showing the impacts of climate change are already happening and drastically altering quality of life. The premiere episode of Showtime’s series, titled “Dry Season,” takes viewers to see climate refugees in Syria (displaced due to severe drought), rainforests in Indonesia being burned to the ground, and cattle ranches in Texas suffering from drought.

Both specials treat manmade global warming as a given and feature established experts on climate science, a welcome change from the contrarian “skeptics” that have been infiltrating the media with doubt and misinformation. “Years of Living Dangerously” begins with Harrison Ford inspecting carbon dioxide measurements — the primary cause of manmade global warming — with the help of NASA scientists. The premiere episode goes on to feature Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, a specialist in drought, along with three other climate scientists. The episode included more climate scientists than celebrities (or contrarians). Carusone lauded this aspect, saying “[e]nding this debate is controversial, but someone needs to do so.”

Although the premiere episode of “Years Of Living Dangerously” doesn’t touch on any solutions to climate change, the series promises to address solutions in later episodes, including segments on renewable energy, global warming as a political priority, and the “greening” of the corporate sector. According to a study from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, painting a dire picture of climate change without providing a solution may cause an audience to reject the message, echoing previous research. As a recent study shows that most broadcast evening news shows often decoupled solutions from messages about the threat of global warming, the Showtime and NBC series again provide a fresh take on the issue by including possible solutions.

Catastrophic climate change is a simple message with many complexities, so these media deep-dives may be necessary for the message to break through. Chris Hayes also hosted an hour-long MSNBC special on the politics of climate change last fall and spoke of the importance of communicating solutions:

I strongly believe that it is extremely important to convince people that the problem is, in fact, solvable. Our record of environmental regulation of pollution, in fact, shows that very often the eventual cost is far, far less than was originally estimated. Human ingenuity is an incredible thing! So if you picked up a certain upbeat undercurrent in the show, you weren’t wrong. I happen to think the problem, as big and terrifying as it is, really is solvable and really will be solved. And I think it’s doubly important to let people know that so as to engender the level of investment and action we need to make sure that hopeful future is ours.

The recent excellent reporting on climate change may act as a “vanguard” for a changing media landscape according to Carusone, but is it enough to tip the scales?

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