Heidi Cullen on Advising and Fact-Checking for Showtime’s ‘Years’

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Climate Central climatologist Heidi Cullen discusses her role as one of the science advisers for upcoming Showtime ‘Years’ climate change documentary.

Heidi Cullen, chief climatologist for Climate Central in Princeton, N.J., was one of two science advisers for the new Showtime series “Years of Living Dangerously,” set to air starting in mid-April (see related article).

The series features a variety of A-List Hollywood stars as field correspondents, including Harrison Ford, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Ian Somerhalder and Jessica Alba, among many others. They travel around the globe to witness stories of drought, wildfire, deforestation and other issues associated with climate change. You’ve heard of “celebrity journalists”? You can think of this as “celebrities AS journalists.”

The series was produced and overseen by entertainment industry heavyweights James Cameron, Jerry Weintraub, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, along with some veteran “60 Minutes” producers. Cullen and Joe Romm, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and Climate Progress prolific blogger, served as chief science advisers.

Yale Forum correspondent John Wihbey posed several questions by e-mail with Cullen, whose prior work for The Weather Channel has made her a well-known, and respected, figure in climate-communications circles. The following is an edited transcript:

The Yale Forum: As a scientist, how do you feel about the use of celebrities/actors to tell science stories? Is this whole exercise an admission that scientists are not effective messengers?

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Heidi Cullen finds celebs offer viewers a ‘fresh perspective’ on climate change.

Heidi Cullen: As a scientist, I’ll be the first to admit we’re not always the best communicators. That said, the celebrity correspondents in “Years of Living Dangerously” were never meant to be experts; they are there to ask questions that the general public would ask. In other words, they are meant to serve as proxies for the viewer. But even though the celebs aren’t scientists or journalists, we set it up so that they could rely on scientists and journalists to guide them as they learned about climate change.

Personally, I think the celebrity correspondents in “Years” add a fresh perspective. For me, it was a way to see the climate story told in a new way. As an audience, we’re watching their journey of understanding … from the science to the politics to the local and personal aspects of climate change.

Finally, we chose celebs so that the show would be entertaining as well as informative. Ultimately, we want people to watch. From a social media perspective, these A-list stars have tremendous reach and connect with audiences that wouldn’t normally tune in to a science documentary.

The Yale Forum: What does it mean to be a “chief science adviser” to a Hollywood TV documentary? You are a scientist whose standard of proof is peer-review. How do you say “yes” or “no” to a particular scene when you are dealing with images, music, and a variety of more subjective, suggestive, and emotion-producing forms of communication? What were your criteria for OK-ing scenes?

Heidi Cullen:  I worked to make sure each story is rigorous in its description of our understanding of climate change. We’re essentially peer-reviewing the script and footnoting the science sections with the latest scientific research that backs up each statement. In some cases, we also reached out to individual experts to make sure we were accurately representing their findings. The goal is to objectively present the most up-to-date science on climate change while not over-attributing a specific event to climate.

The Yale Forum: Did you and Joe Romm in effect “veto” scenes, images, words, or portrayals? How often?

Heidi Cullen: There were several instances where Joe and I weighed in to say the science either wasn’t definitive enough to make certain claims or that we had to take a different track. What was so lovely about this experience for me was that all the editors and producers cared so much about getting the science right. It doesn’t always work that way in TV.

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Cullen, at far left, with scientist Radley Horton on the set of Episode 3 of “Years of Living Dangerously,” speaking with Tottenville High School seniors on Staten Island. (Photo courtesy of Showtime)

The Yale Forum: Let’s suppose that this is among the most important pieces of mass media on climate change since former Vice President Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and the 2011 PBS “Earth: The Operators’ Manual” series.  Compare and contrast the two. Both of those, in their own ways, are considered communications successes. How do you believe the reception might be similar, or different, for “Years”?

Heidi Cullen: My hope is that everyone who tunes in to “Years” finds a way to personally connect with climate change. I think “Years” is different from “An Inconvenient Truth” in that it aims to tell personal (and hopeful) stories about people who are living this issue right here and right now.

The first episode airs on April 13, 2014 at 10 p.m. ET. See the trailer here.

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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