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“Years of Living Dangerously”: James Cameron, Matt Damon, Harrison Ford in TV Climate Change Series

A new Showtime television show featuring Hollywood actors and award-winning journalists brings the issue of climate change alive with the full drama and suspense of a blockbuster movie.

A new Showtime television show featuring Hollywood actors and award-winning journalists brings the issue of climate change alive with the full drama and suspense of a blockbuster movie. In the series, “Years of Living Dangerously,” Harrison Ford travels to Indonesia to investigate the palm oil industry and Arnold Schwarzenegger joins an elite team of wild-land firefighters. Hollywood luminaries such as Matt Damon, James Cameron and Jerry Weintraub have paired up with top reporters and leading climate scientists such as Drs. Heidi Cullen, Joe Romm and James Hansen to tell the true stories of people affected by climate change. We speak to Joe Romm, chief science advisor to “Years of Living Dangerously” and founding editor of Climate Progress.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to a new Showtime series where renowned actors battle torrential rainfall, raging wildfires and prolonged droughts. The series is called Years of Living Dangerously, and it has all the drama and suspense of a Hollywood blockbuster. In one episode, Harrison Ford travels to Indonesia to investigate the palm oil industry and its impacts on greenhouse gases through deforestation. In another, Don Cheadle visits Plainview, Texas, after a huge meat-packing plant closes down because of a drought. And in another episode, Arnold Schwarzenegger joins an elite team of wildland firefighters as they battle infernos.

AMY GOODMAN: The series tackles fact, not fiction. It tells the stories of real people from across the planet affected by climate change. Hollywood luminaries such as Matt Damon and James Cameron and Jerry Weintraub have teamed up with leading climate scientists, like Drs. Heidi Cullen, Joe Romm and Jim Hansen, to bring the story of climate change to life for those yet to feel its impacts. This is a clip from the trailer of Years of Living Dangerously.

JAMES CAMERON: Everybody thinks that climate change is about melting glaciers and polar bears. I think it’s a big mistake. This is 100 percent a people’s story.

UNIDENTIFIED: I felt the water rising. And we went under. I knew I lost her immediately.

UNIDENTIFIED: I don’t think “scary” is the right word. “Dangerous,” definitely.

JAMES CAMERON: We are putting together the ultimate cast. They’re going to be the correspondents.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: There is no more fire season. We have wildfires all year round.

HARRISON FORD: This is unbelievable.

NELLY MONTEZ: We used to have seasons back then.


NELLY MONTEZ: Now we don’t.

LESLEY STAHL: This is a lake?


THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Could Yemen run out of water?

UNIDENTIFIED: Yes, possibly.

UNIDENTIFIED: This abstract idea that the oceans are rising is the next generation’s problem.

ANNA JANE JOYNER: Climate disruption is not a political issue; it’s a moral issue.

DREW FARLEY: A thermometer is not Republican, is not Democrat.

IAN SOMERHALDER: If I’ve seen it in the last 10 years of my life, what am I going to see in the next 50 years?

CHRIS HAYES: There’s going to be more storms, and they’re going to be worse.

HARRISON FORD: What have you done?

MARK BITTMAN: Do you think it makes sense to build, or just give up?

UNIDENTIFIED: I really don’t think the people are going to give up.

UNIDENTIFIED: You don’t want to be on the side that said, “I had a chance, and I didn’t do anything.”

HARRISON FORD: You’ve got to bring an understanding. There’s is an urgent need to change things, or it’s all going to be gone. People need to help make it right.

UNIDENTIFIED: Let’s go get it done! Forward together!

BOB INGLIS: If we think that there is something could be done, then let’s do it.

JAMES CAMERON: This is about survival. This is the biggest story of our time.

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from the trailer, Years of Living Dangerously. The series airs on Showtime starting April 13th at 10:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The first episode of the series is available free online.

For more, we’re joined by Democracy Now! video stream by Joe Romm. He is the chief science adviser to Years of Living Dangerously, founding editor of Climate Progress.

Joe Romm, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the series’ inception, working with James Cameron, what you’re doing with this.

JOSEPH ROMM: Sure. Well, a few years ago, in 2010, I had the chance to spend some time with Cameron. He was interested. He’s a very knowledgeable guy, deeply interested in the oceans and the environment, and he wanted to get more involved in climate change and communications. And one of the ideas that came out of that was for a TV series. And then, you know, kind of one of those great coincidences, about three months later, two 60 Minutes producers, David Gelber and Joel Bach, they also, independently, came up with this idea for doing a documentary on climate change. And they had interviewed me, and they called me, and I said, you know, “Let’s work on this idea. I can tell you, you know, you’ve got to meet James Cameron.” And ultimately, we were able to arrange that meeting. Cameron was very excited and signed on immediately. Jerry Weintraub had already been on board. And from there, you know, I won’t say it was easy to get this on TV, because, as EPA administrator Carol Browner said after—you know, in a panel after one screening, you know, there’s no other show on the air on climate change, and so that fact alone tells you that a lot of people have been turned down for this. So, we had a great team. I can tell you the 60 Minutes producers behind this have 18 Emmys between them.

You know, as Cameron said in the clip that you showed, this is visually compelling human drama. I mean, I think it’s unlike anything anybody has ever seen before. I think if you like high-quality television—I’m talking about, you know, not just 60 Minutes, but I’m talking about Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones or The Sopranos, that is, in the documentary sense, I think, what we are doing, is showing that the television is the place to tell these stories, because they’re—you know, these are—these stories are not just great stories; these will become everybody’s stories if we don’t act on climate change soon. And so, I think, you know, that’s why there’s a universal appeal to this show.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the process of recruiting so many Hollywood luminaries and well-known figures to get involved and to function almost as correspondents to the series, could you talk about that process?

JOSEPH ROMM: Sure, absolutely. I think that sometimes we associate celebrities with these causes, but we tried to do it a very different way. First of all, we wanted to reach out to celebrities who already were very knowledgeable and committed to this cause. And a classic example is Harrison Ford. Obviously, he’s known as, you know, a screen legend, a very hard-charging hero. But he has been, for two decades, on the board of Conservation International. He is very passionate about conservation, very passionate about climate change. And in episode one and two, you see him, you know, learning more about climate change. He actually starts the show off, episode one, in a jet plane. He actually takes over the jet plane. This is a jet plane that NASA has converted from military purposes to monitoring greenhouse gases. And he goes from there to learn from scientists that deforestation is one of the big sources of heat-trapping gases, and so he goes to Indonesia, where he’s told, you know, this is one of the worst situations. And he becomes—he is—it’s unscripted. He’s learning. He becomes engaged, and he ultimately becomes outraged, as what’s happening.

In the end of episode one, which is available on YouTube for free, he says, you know, when he sees the deforestation, which you will be able to see in really gorgeous, gorgeous videos—he sees what’s happened, and he’s set to meet the minister of forestry, and he says, “I can’t wait to meet the minister of forestry. I can’t wait.” And that’s one of the other reasons we have celebrities involved, is they can get access. He’s able—Harrison Ford is able to meet with the head of one of the largest companies doing deforestation. He’s able to meet with the minister of forestry of Indonesia. And then he’s able to meet with the president of Indonesia. And by the second episode, he’s actually able to get them to, you know, at least publicly announce that they are going to change some of their policies, besides being just a very compelling figure as Harrison is.

And let me make one more point. I have seen this on the big screen now in a couple of screenings, TV—movie screens. And I don’t think that—if you see this on a big screen or a big TV set, you will think that this was a movie. You will not think, “Oh, man, this is just like some made-for-TV thing.” This is—the cinematography, the high definition is just spectacular, and I think people will be blown away just by the images, let alone the compelling human drama.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip from the first episode in the series, Years of Living Dangerously, when the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Thomas Friedman investigates how drought contributed to the civil war in Syria. In this clip, he speaks with a Syrian woman and her son.

FATTEN: [translated] We used to own farmland in Syria. The rains were very good. And the land was well watered. And then, suddenly, the drought occurred. The land became like a desert, a salt wasteland. I can’t even describe how terrible it was.

MOHAMMED: [translated] I was around 17. We lost the land. Our way of life changed completely.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Have you ever seen anything like that before?

FATTEN: [translated] No. I’d been there for years. This was the first time such a drought happened. The first time. We spoke out about the drought, saying the government must help. But no one gave a damn. Instead, they brought us in for interrogation. And in the end, they detained us for two months.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Two months! They took you away for two months?

FATTEN: [translated] Yes, they kept us for two months.

MOHAMMED: [translated] They took her and threw her in prison. It was really hard.

FATTEN: [translated] And then they released us—provided we keep our mouths shut. From the first call of Allahu Akbar, we all joined the revolution, right away. I was constantly embedded with the fighters. But when my son was wounded, I brought him here to Turkey.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: And what are your plans now? You want to go back and rejoin your comrades and continue the revolution?

MOHAMMED: [translated] Definitely. I want to go back. I want to finish what we were forced to start.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Thomas Friedman investigating how drought contributes to the civil war in Syria. Joseph Romm, take it from there.

JOSEPH ROMM: Well, let me say that, you know, I don’t want to leave the impression that we’re only dealing with celebrities. They’re just a little part of the show. We have some world-class journalists, like Lesley Stahl. Chris Hayes is a correspondent. Mark Bittman is a correspondent. And Tom Friedman is a correspondent.

And in the opening episode is just this gripping segment where we’re trying to tell a story that I don’t think many people know, which is that prior to the civil war in Syria, there was one of the worst droughts of all time in Syria. And the science, the scientific literature and the scientists we spoke to, said that, you know, climate change clearly played a role in making this drought worse, and there’s going to be a lot worse in the future if we don’t act soon. So, Tom, you know, he’s like one of the only guys who would actually go to Syria. I mean, he crossed the Turkish border into Syria during the civil war, you know, a place of utter chaos, to get to the heart of this story, to actually talk to some people in the rebel camps, who used to be farmers. More than a million farmers were driven off their land by this drought. And it isn’t just the drought. You know, there were multiple factors causing this. And that’s one of the clear points of the episode, is you had the combination of a brutal dictatorship, which just didn’t care about what this drought was doing to its citizens, and then this brutal four-year drought. And the two of them together were just the tinderbox. In fact, “tinderbox” is the phrase that the national security adviser used. Tom Friedman interviews her, and she explains—Susan Rice explains that, you know, yes, climate change is not by any means the sole cause of conflict, but it can be one of the contributing factors.

And so, I think people will be quite surprised, you know, the point being of the show—we clearly show climate change is already affecting Americans. And this notion that climate change is some sort of distant threat, you know, that, I think, should be completely dispelled. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report last week made clear climate change is hitting every part of the world, every continent, and we’re not doing a very good job of dealing with it. But—you know, so we talk about the drought in Texas, and episode three, we talk about the storm surge of Sandy. But the other point is, even when climate change is affecting people far away, like in Syria, you know, it affects us in America. There’s no escape. We are all tied together here. And this—there’s no—it doesn’t matter what your politics is. That’s another point I wanted to make. This is not—


JOSEPH ROMM: OK, yeah, please.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Joe, if we can, because we only have a few seconds left on this segment—

JOSEPH ROMM: Oh, sorry.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk to us about why you don’t have a segment on the XL pipeline?

JOSEPH ROMM: Oh, sure. Well, you know, the way these TV series work, you have to get episodes done and in the can and handed off to Showtime a couple months in advance. And the president had said—as you may know, he said a month or two ago that he was going to make the decision, you know, in a couple months. So, we were having to do these episodes, and knowing that they would be broadcast—they’re going to be broadcast on Showtime Sunday night at 10:00, and then there’s nine total episodes. So it’s going to go from mid-April to early June. And, you know, the president may well make a decision in that time frame, and we would have already finished some episode that would already kind of be irrelevant or out of date. So that’s just a happenstance of the way the production goes, not that we don’t consider it an important issue. But there are so many stories, we could not tell them all. We very much hope there will be a second season. If people watching Democracy Now! tune in, you know, then it will be more likely there’s a second season, and we’ll be able to cover many more stories.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Romm, I want to thank you for being with us, chief science adviser to Years of Living Dangerously, founding editor of Climate Progress. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, a new book is out. It’s called Socialism USA [sic]. We’ll find out—we’ll speak with the editors of the series. Stay with us.

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