A More Convenient (and Compelling?) Truth

Celebrities, Climate and Showtime’s ‘Years of Living Dangerously’

Harrison Ford

Upcoming deluxe cable TV climate change series — visually stunning and stocked with big-name celebrities — seeks to build toward broad public consensus on climate change issues and actions.

In one of the most high-profile, big-budget, and ambitious climate change communications and mass media efforts to date, Showtime will broadcast a new eight-part documentary series, “Years of Living Dangerously,” beginning April 13. The series features some of the world’s biggest names in entertainment as field correspondents.

Harrison Ford travels through remote forests and flies on NASA airplanes taking air samples — and angrily confronts top Indonesian government officials in ways conventional journalists might find improper. Don Cheadle is in drought-ridden Texas. Matt Damon explores the impact of heat waves. There’s plenty of appeal for younger viewers and the People magazine/TMZ crowd: Jessica Alba, America Ferrera, Ian Somerhalder, Olivia Munn. Mixed in too are some journalists: Columnist Thomas Friedman reports on a war-ravaged Syria stressed by climatic changes; food and cooking writer Mark Bittman is in New Jersey, exploring the implications of Hurricane Sandy; and Chris Hayes of MSNBC is on Staten Island, while CBS News’ Lesley Stahl is in the Arctic.

Harrison Ford

The stories are woven together in a narrative tapestry, each episode following some of the multiple issues pursued by the 16 principal storytellers involved. The $20 million production was shot at locations around the United States and the world, giving its content appeal for local and regional audiences domestically and abroad. Showtime data shows the deluxe cable station reaches 23 million cable subscribers, or about one-fifth of U.S. households with television sets. About 90 days after the show airs, DVD sales and electronic sell-through viewings, along with on-demand options, are to begin. The program’s creators say they hope to produce a second season.

As part of a larger “The Years Project,” the new documentary is to be supported also by a broader online engagement and awareness campaign.

Judging from the first two episodes made available to media, the series is produced with the kind of attractive, high-end production values — stirring music, fast pacing, and superior editing and filming — you’d expect from its all-star cast of producers and backers, which include James Cameron, Jerry Weintraub and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and “60 Minutes” veterans.

Peer-reviewing the Script

Fact-checked and advised on the science by Climate Central’s Heidi Cullen (also see a Yale Forum Q&A with her) and prolific climate writer and analyst Joe Romm of Climate Progress/Center for American Progress, the series explores serious data and research as correspondents speak with scientists, activists, politicians, and average citizens presented as seeing changes all around them.

Cullen says the celebrities are meant to serve as “proxies” for the average viewer, posing questions and exploring uncertainties. They add “a fresh perspective,” she said, adding that “all the editors and producers cared so much about getting the science right.”

Jessica Alba

Two recent historical precedents to “Years” may come to mind as climate change documentary sensations. The 2011 PBS three-part series “Earth: The Operators’ Manual” featured Penn State climatologist Richard Alley, a highly regarded scientist and charismatic science communicator.

And there is of course former Vice President Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” shown in movie theaters worldwide, and generally seen as being highly effective in introducing the climate issue to the broad public and in audience persuasion.

‘Years’: Showing ‘Heartbreak’ along with a Fair Dose of Optimism

Perhaps distinguishing itself from those two documentaries, “Years” is less a purely professorial work that focuses on  “consensus science” findings and datapoints — though there seems plenty of that too in the series. The new documentary strives also to be more of a production building toward a sort of global “consensus experience” of climatic change, and it includes ample upbeat or “optimistic” messages along with the grim news of a rapidly warming atmosphere. “Years”  follows human subjects over substantial periods of time, developing deeper character sketches, showing “heartbreak,” and putting a “human face” on the issue, as its creators say.

“We include science coverage,” says Daniel Abbasi, an executive producer, climate advocate, author, and green investor who helped organize the project, “but less by charts and graphs and statistics and more by scientists showing us what they do in the field and why they’re reaching the conclusion that this problem is such a serious risk to the viability of our civilization and requires urgent action.”

Abbasi said in an interview that the series “unabashedly covers some of the emotional content around climate change and, in this sense, does something I think [much] of the cerebral coverage of climate change is missing.”

“All in all,” he continues, “‘Years’ challenges our fellow citizens to come with their full cognitive and emotional minds engaged so we can process the climate change issue and take much needed action.”

Whether the series will be subject to the scene-by-scene science debates and media critiques that Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” ultimately was remains to be seen, but barbs from those steadfastly rejecting the scientific “consensus” are all but certain. By taking to the “field” to assess climate change, “Years” of course runs right into sticky attribution problems — establishing accurate connections between human-induced atmospheric changes and weather, drought, etc.

The project’s primary funding comes from a variety of philanthropists both in the United States and Europe. (Disclosure: The Yale Forum shares a common funder.)

Media Patterns and Celebrity Action

There is little new about using celebrities to promote causes, of course, although this series has actors getting their “hands dirty” more than most prior efforts. Actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio have attempted to bring attention to environmental issues and climate change — he narrated “The 11th Hour,” a 2007 film about the subject — and make it part of their public persona and “brand.” Daryl Hannah and Danny Glover have at times been prominent parts of the anti-Keystone XL pipeline movement, bringing more media attention.

News content analysis data suggest that mainstream media have increasingly reported on the advocacy of celebrities as part of their climate coverage, researchers say. A 2010 paper by Max Boykoff of the University of Colorado, Mike Goodman, then of King’s College London, and Jo Littler of Middlesex University provides some insight into this media trend of covering “charismatic megafauna,” as the scholars cheekily put it.

Graph from 2010 paper

The Social Science of Celebrity

In advance press materials, the creators of “Years of Living Dangerously” point out that some of the celebrities featured have “authentic commitment” to climate change and related environmental causes:  Harrison Ford is a Conservation International Board Member; Matt Damon is co-founder of Water.org; Don Cheadle is a UN Environmental Program Global Ambassador.

Matt Damon

Declan Fahy, associate professor at American University’s School of Communication, notes that celebrities have a powerful promotional value and can help reach wider audiences. But their power goes beyond that, he says:

Their cultural influence goes deeper than just promotion. They personify ideas and social issues. They put a recognizable, individual face on a complex, systemic phenomenon like climate change and therefore make the issue connect with audiences, engaging them on the issue, and potentially mobilizing them to take action. How this happens is a complicated process, but the power of celebrity is real.

Still, Fahy warns, much depends on the pre-existing image of the particular celebrity. “They bring their cultural baggage and histories into the show, leaving it open to the potential criticism that [it] is another example of liberal entertainment elites preaching to the country,” Fahy, who is to publish a book on scientific celebrities later this year, noted in an e-mail interview. “So someone like Harrison Ford looks like a good choice messenger, as his long track record with Conservation International means his involvement cannot be portrayed as an opportunistic way for him to get publicity.”

Likewise, Goodman, now of University of Reading (U.K.), wrote in an e-mail that “celebrities can divide audiences as much as they can bring them in.” His empirical work on celebrities involved in food and humanitarian issues in Britain suggests that “who the celebrity is really matters to how their message is taken and if it is taken seriously.” Further, he says:

The role of authenticity and credibility is really important here if this is about the person talking about the details and being a part of the show rather than just the voice over; indeed if they begin to pronounce on things they seem like they know nothing about or their credentials have not been established either beforehand or during the show, then they are often not taken seriously and their message and detail is lost or can be lost.

Boykoff and Goodman’s 2009 paper in the journal Geoforum, “Conspicuous Redemption? Reflections on the Promises and Perils of the ‘Celebritization’ of Climate Change,” categorizes the various classes of famous persons now doing climate change activism, including musicians, athletes, business people and politicians. While celebrities can bring mass attention, Boykoff and Goodman note, it is possible that they may also “reduce proposed critical behavioral changes to the domain of fashion and fad rather than influence substantive long-term shifts in popular discourse and action.” There is a danger that such climate celebrities focus the issue on the “heroic individual” — providing an “individual frame” for action — and not on more distributed collective movements of citizens striving toward social justice.

Schwarzenegger: ‘Baggage and Histories’ with Timber Holdings?

On Fahy’s “cultural baggage and histories” point, a number of media reports began circulating on March 25 concerning Schwarzenegger’s purported links to what Britain’s Guardian newspaper described as “some of the world’s  most destructive logging companies.”

The British newspaper’s Washington, D.C.-based environmental correspondent, Suzanne Goldenberg, reported March 25 that Schwarzenegger “is a part owner of an investment company, Dimensional Fund Advisers, with significant holdings in tropical forestry companies.” She reported that research done by Global Witness had indicated Schwarzenegger had an estimated 5 percent stake in the firm, which Goldenberg said manages $338 billion globally. She quoted a Global Witness spokesperson as characterizing Schwarzenegger’s involvement as “deeply hypocritical.”

The Huffington Post and Britain’s The Independent were among other papers carrying first-day news stories on the Global Witness investigation.

With More Celebrities Can Come More Social Media Action

Nevertheless, in the digital age celebrities certainly bring with them social media power — and that kind of power sometimes can jump across polarized networks. The project will benefit immensely if the celebrity participants lend their social power over time, research suggests.

In a working paper analyzing social media discourse patterns during the 2012 presidential election, Deen Freelon of American University and David Karpf of George Washington University coin the term “bridging elites” to describe celebrities and high-profile non-political persons whose messages reach beyond the more narrowly partisan audiences of other elites and pundits. It can help solve the “polarized crowds” problem that the Pew Research Center has identified as characteristic of discussions on Twitter, for example.

By putting celebrities directly in the field of climate change, “Years” stands as a bold experiment whose approach and impact will surely be studied for some time. If it can help de-polarize, bridge, and persuade, it may be seen as a novel and important breakthrough and may open new avenues for climate change communications.

John Wihbey

A regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections, John Wihbey is an editor and researcher at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. (E-mail: john@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @wihbey)
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15 Responses to Celebrities, Climate and Showtime’s ‘Years of Living Dangerously’

  1. This looks great, and Showtime is to be congratulated in advance for the production. I sure hope they focus on solutions, the most important of which is to harness the economy by the US Congress’ placing a revenue-neutral carbon tax on all fossil fuels at their point of entry into the economy. Without a carbon price there is no chance of bringing emissions under control. With it, we just may have a fighting chance.

    • Martyn says:

      There are many ways to cut CO2 emissions. It can be entirely removed from, for example, electricity generation, and done in a manner without impoverising a nation in the process. The nation of France has more or less achieved this goal through hydroelectric and nuclear energy, and has lower electricity prices than most of the rest of europe.
      Instead of deliberately impoverising citizens with more taxes, which they resent paying, go for tried and tested low CO2 solutions which work which work. Carbon taxes are not necessary and promote climate change denial. They are utterly self defeating.

  2. Bob Bingham says:

    Interesting that the two new big exporting countries of fossil fuels, Canada and Australia, have declining interest in climate change. What price freedom of the press?

  3. Jim Keil says:

    The US has just come through the 2nd or 3rd coldest winter in the last 100 years and this show is going to use celebrities to convince the American audience that climate change in the form of global warming should be an immediate concern! It was way down on the list of concerns in the Gallup and Pew Research polls to begin with. The Gore effect (promoting global warming hysteria in frigid temps) is in full mode here.

    • John Smith says:

      Jim, I hope I don’t need to remind you that “climate” refers to a 30-year trend and that individual cold or warm events are not in question but the long-term trends. If you are pro-science, you may find reason to be skeptical of this effort to include celebrities – but you should equally question fossil fuel industry funded propaganda that combats legitimate scientific reporting and research everyday. If celebrities are what it takes to make the average adult or child engage in scientific and environmental issues, then I believe it’s ultimately a good thing.

      • Paul Quigg says:

        We must always be skeptical. Scientists have their own territory to protect along with the fossil fuel interests. No one owns the high ground in this climate change debate.

        • WAYNE DELBEKE says:

          Celebrities are nothing but paid puppets with no science, physics, geophysics, meteorological, or engineering background. They are political tools, playing out a script, nothing more. Look at their carbon foot prints – Harrison Ford’s multiple homes, helicopters, sterilized living space in Montana. None of them are believable. They are actors acting.

      • Jim Keil says:

        John, as you know even climate scientists such as James Hansen acknowledge that there is a “hiatus” concerning the global temperatures (land and ocean) worldwide. I agree that 10-15 years do not establish a trend, but the recent flatlining of temperatures was completely missed by the ensemble of model runs from the Coupled Model Interface Project (CMIP5). Climate scientists are all over the map trying to explain it, Cowtan and Way and Trenberth, Balmeseda reanalyses, to name a few. If climate scientists can’t even determine whether clouds are a net positive or negative forcing event, I’m sure as not going to listen to celebrity activists tell me about impending doom. Of course the public is not tuned to these details but after a winter like this it’s going to take a prayer for the celebs to gin up any credibility. How did Matt Damon’s “Nicaragua” turn out in the box office? Celebrity preaching usually always fail to influence anyone.

      • Ian says:

        But there has been no warming for 17 years out of “your 30 required”.

      • Martyn says:

        “but you should equally question fossil fuel industry funded propaganda that combats legitimate scientific reporting and research everyday”

        What exactly are you talking about ?
        Which company or companies? what amount of money in dollars ? which legitimate scientific reporting ? and which research ? which day (day-month-year) did each individual company spend money to combat which research ?

  4. Brian Smith says:

    Thank you John Wihbey. Long awaited, and yes, “may be seen as a novel and important breakthrough and may open new avenues for climate change communications.”

    It comes at the right moment when public concern/uncertainty over climate danger and solutions is parallel with growing distrust of Big Energy and their congressional shills, economy-killing weather events, the end of hope for the UN COP process, the IPCC AR5 report, more scientists getting more vocal and many other tension-building factors that so far have added up to mush in the public mind and in the media. The value of mass media been abandoned lately in favor of attention to targeted communication. Both are essential, but Years, even with a limited audience, is going to, at least temporarily, drive a lot of discussion in the MSM we would not see otherwise. Are we prepared to take best advantage of this?

    It’s really a complex moment –and opportunity– that needs not only successful, attention getting mass media events like Years that focus public attention but, I think, a climate communications/media strategy that brings more consistency to the whole effort to educate the public. I’m a strong believer that collaboration around media strategy by stakeholders is a Genie in the bottle that needs to be let out.

    If there is no discussion of strategy and what that implies for coordinated action, I think we will later wish we hadn’t overlooked it. Perhaps Yale Forum will be interested in this angle. Randy Olson invoked the question plainly, calling his presentation “Dude, Where’s My Climate Movement?” We need to be talking about this a lot more. We can’t bet on public awakening to climate reality coming somehow from the sum of diverse communications efforts, most of which remain under the public radar. If the climate community were organized, at least around media strategy, we’d be miles closer to public acceptance of the scientific consensus by now.

    • Nullius in Verba says:

      Something else you may need to consider in your media strategy is how the public will perceive the strategy itself.

      The modern media age is an age of advertising. We are constantly bombarded by campaigns aiming to persuade us to this view or that, to buy this product or that, and the public are moderately adept at recognizing when somebody is trying to sell us something. They don’t simply take in and believe everything they watch on TV; they ask themselves who is telling them this and why, and what limits and checks there might be on its accuracy. Are there political or commercial interests at work? Or strong belief systems? Is it consistent, and does the message conflict with anything they already know? What actual evidence has been presented?

      A slick big-budget media presentation tells people that whoever wants them to know this is from a big player, which is often all that people need to know for product awareness purposes. When buying a product from a range you don’t know, you’ll tend to pick one from the biggest, best-known manufacturers on the basis that if their product was terrible they wouldn’t be that big. They don’t necessarily believe the claims made in the advert, what they pay attention to is the fact you can afford TV advertising. People follow celebrity advertising because they know celebrities are expensive – not because they think they’re especially good judges of product quality.

      But is that the message you really want to put out? I don’t think there’s any doubt in the public mind that the campaign for climate action is not coming from a small group of nobodies: major-league politicians and governments and top scientific organizations have all come out making statements on it. Celebrity endorsement doesn’t tell anybody anything new.

      I don’t know for sure, but I suspect what triggers the lack of interest is the perception of a one-sided political campaign to tell people what they are to believe, and to rubbish and exclude anyone who says any different. It shouts “Advertising!” and activates people’s mental safeguards against that. They will recognize it as the socially approved opinion (or its opposite, depending on their politics) that they need to present as part of their public face, but they will naturally assume that it is exaggerated and partial, as all advertising is. And the more desperate you seem to be for their belief and the more visibly the opposition is suppressed, the more exaggerated and partial they will assume it to be.

      When people don’t have the information to judge for themselves, but must rely on (obviously partisan) experts to simply tell them what to believe, their confidence in the conclusion is (rightly) much weaker. They’ll willingly express it as an opinion, where there’s no cost to doing so, but they won’t stake anything important on it, such as their comfortable lifestyle or their job.

      Given that seems to be where we are here, I don’t think that celebrity endorsement or big-bucks media campaigns that are obviously aimed at persuasion are really what you need. But I could be wrong. It will be interesting to see what effect the show has.

  5. Paul Quigg says:

    We must be very, very careful what we ask for. The “Media Patterns and Celebrity Action” graph show the 2007 spike in celeb activity. Post 2007, interest in climate change nose dived after “An Inconvenient Truth”, as Gore and other over the top catastrophic predictions were shown as gross exaggerations. The frustratingly slow growth in alternative energy consumption, as is shown in all governmental statistics, when combined with the inertia realities of GHG atmospheric lifetimes, basically shows that it will take many years and a vast GLOBAL effort to make any significant impact. The Germans increasing use of US coal and Russian gas to cut their expensive, non-competitive energy costs is a testament to the disappointing results of their “Energiewende”. Do we want to start our own Energiewende?

  6. Karl Blair says:

    I imagine that as a fully paid up member of LA LA land Mr Ford is perfect for the job.

  7. Mighty Carbon Man says:

    This is about money and power; can you say carbon tax (the money) can you say power (political control over energy)? These media hacks, politicians and Hollywood types all live lavish expensive lifestyles and use far far more energy than the common man ever will. Isn’t it ironic that those who have wealth and comfort are so determined to deprive others of the same using the scam of “climate change” (as we all know the climate is always in a state of change) or “man made global warming”?