TV Just Came Around on Global Warming. Will Anyone Care?

Giant tabular icebergs are surrounded by ice floe drift in Vincennes Bay on January 11, 2008 in the Australian Antarctic Territory.
National Journal
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
April 14, 2014, 1 a.m.

Mr. De­Mille, cli­mate change is ready for its close-up.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists have long com­plained that cli­mate is­sues are largely ig­nored on tele­vi­sion news. And when cli­mate does make the main screen, the dis­cus­sion is not about how to ad­dress glob­al warm­ing, but in­stead on a ques­tion that the move­ment — and the vast ma­jor­ity of sci­ent­ists — con­sider long-settled: wheth­er hu­man activ­ity is chan­ging the cli­mate.

On Sunday, however, the move­ment could hardly com­plain about its place in the spot­light.

Show­time launched the first hour of the nine-part series Years of Liv­ing Dan­ger­ously — a series fo­cused on the ef­fects of cli­mate change and pos­sible solu­tions to ad­dress it. Pres­id­ent Obama is par­ti­cip­at­ing, and gran­ted the series a sit-down in­ter­view fo­cused solely on cli­mate change.

Hol­ly­wood is bring­ing its heavy hit­ters as well: The series is pro­duced by James Camer­on, the dir­ect­or of cinema jug­ger­nauts Avatar and Ti­tan­ic, and fea­tures celebrit­ies like Arnold Schwar­zeneg­ger, Har­ris­on Ford, and Jes­sica Al­ba. It will fea­ture Hol­ly­wood-ready im­ages like wild­fires, melt­ing ice caps, and swoop­ing heli­copter rides.

The series is earn­ing kudos from greens — Dan Weiss of the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress called it “a cure for main­stream me­dia at­ten­tion de­fi­cit dis­order” — but get­ting cli­mate change in the spot­light was nev­er their end game.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists want the pub­lic to be aware of cli­mate change and to de­mand their gov­ern­ment do something about it. And on that score, it’s un­clear wheth­er the Show­time series has the juice to move the needle.

Twenty-three mil­lion sub­scribers pay for the premi­um chan­nel, and the net­work’s demo­graph­ics sug­gest the series will preach largely to the con­ver­ted.

A 2012 study by the brand think tank Buy­ology found that Show­time — along with fel­low premi­um net­work HBO — was the most polit­ic­ally po­lar­iz­ing of the ma­jor net­works, with its con­tent gen­er­ally find­ing fa­vor among Demo­crats. So the doc­u­ment­ary isn’t likely to change the minds of any skep­tics, and it may not even reach them.

Still, the Left sees reas­on for ex­cite­ment.

The de­but also comes just a week after NBC News aired a one-hour spe­cial hos­ted by Ann Curry titled “Our Year of Ex­tremes: Did Cli­mate Change Just Hit Home?” The piece tackled ex­treme weath­er and fea­tured trips to the Arc­tic, drought-stricken areas of the Amer­ic­an West, and coast­lines that face rising sea levels.

That pro­gram too hinged on a state­ment of fact: There is “vir­tu­ally no de­bate among cli­mate sci­ent­ists” that cli­mate change is tak­ing place, Curry said, adding that there’s “no doubt that the plan­et is get­ting warm­er.”

An­gelo Carusone, ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent of Me­dia Mat­ters, said that the two spe­cials can act as a “van­guard,” but it’s not enough to tip the scales of main­stream cli­mate cov­er­age.

The left-lean­ing me­dia watch­dog has cri­ti­cized net­works and Sunday shows for too of­ten cov­er­ing cli­mate change as a de­bate rather than in­ter­view­ing sci­ent­ists or dis­cuss­ing the ef­fects. But Carusone said that both Show­time and NBC com­ing from the po­s­i­tion that cli­mate change is real does mark a shift. “End­ing this de­bate is con­tro­ver­sial, but someone needs to do so, and maybe that’s the takeaway,” he said.

Such a shift would also ad­dress tra­di­tion­al gripes about the cov­er­age of cli­mate. A re­cent Uni­on of Con­cerned Sci­ent­ists re­port graded three ma­jor cable news net­works for their cli­mate-sci­ence cov­er­age and found that only 28 per­cent of the cov­er­age on Fox News met their stand­ards for ac­cur­acy, com­pared with 70 per­cent on CNN and 92 per­cent on MS­N­BC.

And a re­port from left-lean­ing Me­dia Mat­ters found that al­though cov­er­age of cli­mate change and glob­al warm­ing on news net­works had in­creased over last year, the total cov­er­age was still well be­low its 2009 high and did not typ­ic­ally rely on sci­ence. Only two sci­ent­ists ap­peared on a Sunday show — both on CBS’s Face the Na­tion — last year, the group found.

But with those two grand-scale pro­jects — one on a ma­jor net­work — stat­ing the ex­ist­ence of cli­mate change, the is­sue has es­sen­tially gone from a Life­time ori­gin­al movie to the Lord of the Rings tri­logy.

The Ann Curry hour is also in­dic­at­ive of what could be a lar­ger shift for NBC. The net­work was lauded for its cov­er­age of the United Na­tions In­ter­gov­ern­ment­al Pan­el on Cli­mate Change re­port last month, which fea­tured two sci­ent­ists from the pan­el.

The new at­ten­tion, Carusone said, could mark a pivot point, at least for one net­work.

“I think this is a re­flec­tion of two things: the hol­low­ness of the over­all land­scape and the anxi­et­ies around the in­ac­tion start­ing to per­col­ate and feed­ing a de­mand to end this end­less de­bate,” said An­gelo Carusone, ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent of Me­dia Mat­ters. “When a ma­jor net­work de­votes that much time to it, it shows they’re re­spond­ing to a de­mand.”

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