Mark McCaffrey's picture

Living Dangerously

A year and a half ago when I heard about a new Showtime series about human contributions to changing climate—Years of Living Dangerously—which aired its first episode this past week, my first thought was the classic 1982 Peter Weir film The Year of Living Dangerously. A young Mel Gibson played a intrepid journalist asking tough questions of officials in corrupt Indonesia.

Watching the first episode of the new Showtime series with my family the other night, I was amused to see Mr. Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford,  getting fired up to ask corrupt Indonesian officials tough questions, in this case, why they allow the rainforest, which sequesters a large fraction of the planet’s available carbon, to be clear cut to make room for palm oil plantations. A subtle tip-of-the-hat to the original film? 

Interwoven with Harrison Ford’s exploration of land-use changes in Indonesia are two other story lines: Don Cheadle visits Texas and meets Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, an Evangelical Christian climate scientist. Together they explore the question of whether climate science and religion necessarily conflict as they discuss the causes and consequences of severe drought that is affecting a deeply Christian community. The third story line follows New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as he visits Syria to learn first-hand about the role of drought in Middle Eastern upheavals.

You may have heard about the series from a Times op-ed "Global Warming Scare Tactics" by Nordhaus and Schellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute that warned of the dire consequences of using fear-based approaches to conveying the dangers of human caused climate change. They used the trailer of Years of Living Dangerously (or YLD for short) as Exhibit A for the approach of scaring people about climate change—an approach which they argue can be counterproductive and backfire. They also criticize the Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth for contributing to the polarized politics around the topic. In turn, they were roundly criticized for their critique by those who had actually watched more than the trailer.

Is it true that scaring people about serious risks can be counter-productive and backfire? Absolutely. A case in point: the Ad Council’s Fight Global Warming ad from nearly a decade ago that shows a man scoffing that the impacts of climate change don’t bother him, and ends with a child about to be run over by a train. But downplaying the future impacts or putting a happy techno-optimistic face on a complex and daunting problem like global climate change, as Nordhaus and Schellenberger seem to suggest, isn’t the solution either.

Our family found the first episode of YLD decidedly dramatic, but also fresh and engaging in a way that few climate-change related programs for the general public have been. The story-telling approach with well-known celebrities, weaving together various tales that share a common thread of changing climate was very engaging.  Emphasizing the impacts of human activities and what can be done to minimize them makes this series ripe with potential to bring a fresh perspective to the topic. And most important, at the heart of Years of Living Dangerously is the science: how it is conducted, what the findings of the research say, and what the implications and possible responses are.

As Showtime subscribers (and Homeland addicts), we are among a minority of Americans who can watch YLD on television. So, is YLD planning to tap the educational potential of the show? The short answer is: yes; they’ve teamed up with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which has a Climate Classroom website and has long been a champion of environmental education. At this point the YLD Climate Classroom is a placeholder, with some charts for teachers to download to show how the episodes map to various education standards. 

Promoting such materials is not without risk—efforts to promote the use of An Inconvenient Truth in classrooms led to charges of inappropriate politicization and other complaints. As an organization that advocates tirelessly for keeping ideology out of the science classroom, we are extremely sensitive to anything that might put pressure on teachers to “teach both sides.” It is challenging to teach a topic that is so heavily politicized outside the classroom; teachers must walk the fine line between inspiring discussion, insight, and depth of understanding of the issues, on one hand, and promoting a particular political or ideological agenda on the other.

Overtly promoting specific behavior change, which some environmental education materials do, is a delicate and some would argue inappropriate role for a science teacher. That’s why we recommend against using An Inconvenient Truth in the classroom, and instead using more current resources like the program Earth: The Operators' Manual.

Will YLD end up serving a useful role in the classroom? On the basis of the first episode, the program looks to be well-balanced—dramatic to be sure, alarming without being alarmist..

Three thumbs up from our family for episode one of Years of Living Dangerously. We look forward to the rest of the series and will be curious to see how efforts to maximize the educational opportunities inherent in the program evolve.