Years of Living Dangerously
Years of Living Dangerously is a 9-part Showtime documentary television series focusing on climate change that premiered on April 13, 2014. James Cameron, Jerry Weintraub, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and clean energy investor and environmental activist Daniel Abbasi are executive producers of the series. Joel Bach and David Gelber, former 60 Minutes producers, are co-creators of the series as well as executive producers. Joseph Romm and Heidi Cullen are the chief science advisors.
The weekly episodes feature celebrity investigators, who each have a history of environmental activism, and well-known journalists, each of whom have a background in environmental reportage. These "correspondents" travel to areas around the world and throughout the U.S. affected by global warming to interview experts and ordinary people affected by, and seeking solutions to, the impacts of climate change. They act as proxies for the audience, asking questions to find out people's opinions and to discover the scientific evidence. The celebrities include Harrison Ford, Matt Damon, Ian Somerhalder, Jessica Alba, Don Cheadle, America Ferrera, Michael C. Hall, Olivia Munn and Schwarzenegger. The journalists include Lesley Stahl, Thomas Friedman, Chris Hayes and Mark Bittman. The final episode includes Friedman's interview of President Barack Obama.
Schwarzenegger reflected on why the issue of climate change has not yet resonated strongly with the public despite the warnings from the scientific community: "I think the environmental movement only can be successful if we are simple and clear and make it a human story. We will tell human stories in this project. The scientists would never get the kind of attention that someone in show business gets."
Episode 1, "Dry Season" (first aired on April 13, 2014), follows three stories. Don Cheadle reports on the severe droughts in the Southwest United States, following scientist and devout Christian, Katharine Hayhoe, as she tries to communicate to religious audiences the connection between extreme weather and climate change; Harrison Ford visits Indonesia to learn how slash-and-burn deforestation, driven by the worldwide appetite for products like palm oil and paper, contributes a large portion of the world's carbon emissions, and he explores the struggle to resist it; and Thomas Friedman investigates how drought contributed to the civil war in Syria.
In Episode 2, "End of the Woods" (April 20, 2014), Arnold Schwarzenegger accompanies a team of elite firefighters in Western U.S. forests as they face the fire season made longer and more destructive by global warming. He learns, however, that even more destruction is caused by the proliferation of bark beetles, as longer summers enable them to reproduce up to twice each year and kill trees with their toxic secretions. Meanwhile, Ford continues his quest to stop Indonesian deforestation and the carbon emissions and displacement of animals and people that it causes, confronting officials including Indonesia's Forestry Minister, Zulkifli Hasan, and its President.
In Episode 3, "The Surge" (April 27, 2014), Chris Hayes reports on how Superstorm Sandy affected towns and families; he meets with congressman Michael Grimm from New Jersey, initially a climate skeptic, who changes his position on global warming after reviewing the science and the work of fellow-Republican Bob Inglis. M. Sanjayan circles the globe to see the effects of climate change firsthand and interviews scientists about global warming and the data that they are collecting around the world, for example at Christmas Island, where El Niños begin.
In Episode 4, "Ice & Brimstone" (May 4, 2014), Ian Somerhalder follows the daughter of prominent Evangelical preacher, Rick Joyner, as she tries to persuade congregations and preachers in North Carolina (including her father) to join the Evangelical fight against global warming and the Beyond Coal campaign to shut down a coal-fired power plant. Lesley Stahl visits Greenland to investigate the effects of global warming in the Arctic on global sea levels and to learn about the rush to develop oil and gas reserves there. She finds that Greenland's ice is melting five times faster than only 20 years ago, but the country stands to gain trillions of dollars from development made possible by the melting. Scientist Heidi Cullen explains to her that " if we don’t leave 30 percent of our oil and gas reserves untapped, large parts of our planet will become unlivable." Stahl meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has called climate change "perhaps the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction".
In Episode 5, "True Colors" (May 12, 2014), Olivia Munn learns about ocean acidification and the proposed West Coast coal export terminals that would nearly double US coal exports. She follows the new governor of the State of Washington, Jay Inslee, as he makes the fight against global warming a top priority in his first year in office, using his executive powers when necessary to get around Republican climate-change skeptics in the state legislature. Inslee says, "We're not going to wait until the last person in Washington understands physics and chemistry in order to confront climate change" and he "urged the media to be more aggressive in covering climate threats since we face 'civilizational suicide' if we fail to act." Columnist Mark Bittman of The New York Times follows up on the post-Hurricane Sandy rebuilding story, the global rise in sea level, and what is being done to better prepare the East coast for storms and surges. He examines the Dutch system of flood management and discovers that, in New Jersey, rebuilding so close to the ocean is environmentally and financially unsustainable. Governor Chris Christie refuses "to acknowledge the role that climate change played in amplifying the impacts" of Sandy. Bittman also finds that Christie pulled New Jersey out of RGGI after meeting with the Koch brothers, who then funded campaign advertising for Christie.
In Episode 6, "Winds of Change" (May 19, 2014), America Ferrera reports on how public policy has supported the growth of wind and solar power in Kansas, and how the oil and gas companies, and their well-funded lobbyists and allies like the Heartland Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council, are pushing lawmakers to reverse this. Meanwhile, Bittman discovers that extracting natural gas through fracking delays our transition to renewable energy and that fracking wells leak a large amount of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, which makes fracked natural gas as dirty as, or dirtier than, burning coal.
Episode 7, "Revolt, Rebuild, Renew" (May 26, 2014) covers the economic costs of global warming. Jessica Alba follows Climate Corps fellows as they work to help US companies to save money and improve profits through energy efficiency and sustainability management. Friedman studies how the effect of global warming on the US wheat crop (and the wheat crop in other exporting nations) caused a spike in wheat prices in the Middle East, helping to provoke the Arab Spring. He learns that "Earth could warm by more than 9 degrees F (5 degrees C) by 2100 if we don’t aggressively reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases", and that more frequent heat waves and droughts will contribute to food shortages, which can lead to greater conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere. Hayes explores the economy of another area adversely affected by Hurricane Sandy, Far Rockaway, discovering that the most economically vulnerable people have been the most severely affected, losing their jobs because of lack of transportation, or having to move away altogether. He concludes that New York and other cities are unprepared for the effects of global warming on their poorest citizens.
In Episode 8, "A Dangerous Future" (June 2, 2014) Michael C. Hall travels to Bangladesh to see how climate change will impact the rest of the world in the coming decades, when a projected 150 million people will be forced to leave their homes to escape sea level rise and increased drought, insect-borne disease and flooding. He finds that in low-lying, flood-prone Bangladesh, sea level rise and the lengthening of the monsoon season, both caused by global warming, have already caused a migration of coastal people to Dhaka and other cities, and even across the border into India, because they have lost their homes or livelihoods. These factors are projected to lead to the displacement of 20 million of Bangladeshis by 2100. Hall notes that since the US has contributed a large portion of the emissions already in the atmosphere, it bears responsibility for the climate change impacts in poorer nations. Matt Damon explores the public health emergencies around the nation and world caused by more frequent, intense, and longer heat waves, which kill more Americans than hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and lightning combined and cause health problems associated with dehydration. Friedman continues his Middle East investigation in Yemen, where the scarcity of water is already leading to local fighting. He speaks with President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Friedman concludes that where climate change leads to more frequent droughts, it is a factor that can push a volatile political situation towards war.
On Episode 9, "Moving a Mountain" (June 9, 2014), Hall concludes his journey to Bangladesh, where rising seas are expected to submerge 17% of the country. He learns that global warming is a human rights, public health and foreign policy issue. Sanjayan questions top climate scientists in their fields who collect data from the past, such as ice core samples, that explain how our climate is changing. Friedman interviews President Barack Obama on climate change. He finds that climate can change so fast that it can wipe out a civilization and that "action taken to curb greenhouse emissions could have a measurable, helpful impact." Obama echoes this, saying "there’s a lot we can do about" global warming. He notes that he is deeply concerned about the issue as a father, and he is optimistic that, with persistence, America can make progress on battling global warming and can become a leader on the issue. Obama acknowledges that, to avoid the worst effects of global warming, we must leave some fossil fuels unexploited. He tells Friedman that "if you profess leadership in this country at this moment in our history, then you've got to recognize [that global warming] is going to be one of the most significant long-term challenges, if not the most significant long-term challenge, that this country faces and that the planet faces. ... when [the effects of climate change] start multiplying, then people start thinking '... We're going to reward politicians who talk to us honestly and seriously about this problem.'"
Distribution and schedule
The show premiered on Showtime on Sunday, April 13, 2014 at 10:00pm Eastern and Pacific time. Episode 1 was made available freely on the internet on April 7, 2014, prior to its television debut. The next three episodes aired at 10:00pm ET/PT on Sundays, April 20 and 27 and May 4; the last five episodes aired on Monday nights, May 12, 19 and 26, and June 2 and 9 at 8:00pm ET/PT.
The series producers maintain a website that contains bonus footage and further information about the stories told in the episodes. It also contains:
- information about, and links to, the science on which the episodes are based;
- a climate activism page with links to petitions and fundraising pages; and
- an educators page, in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation, that links to age-appropriate resources for middle and high school teachers and students, college faculty and students, and parents.
The series' Metacritic score is 81. The Globe and Mail calls the series "a lavish, gripping production focused on the real effect of climate change in real people’s lives around the world." The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media noted that the series shows what scientists 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. ... [The] actors [get] their 'hands dirty'. ... [The show] may ... open new avenues for climate change communications." Skeptical Science terms the series "terrific and powerful. ... The series sets a dramatic, powerful urgent tone." Bryan Walsh of Time magazine wrote that: "it's a strong work of documentary journalism, with richly shot and compelling stories".
On The New York Times Dot Earth blog, Andrew C. Revkin wrote that "the Showtime team, at least in episode one, deserves plaudits for taking a compellingly fresh approach to showing the importance of climate hazards to human affairs ... having the movie and television stars ... asking questions and driving the story through their inquiry." The Sun Herald commented: "The stories are compelling, and were filmed as real news was happening around the participants. A reviewer for The Hollywood Reporter thought: "The documentary does an excellent job of being simple and clear without being arrogant, and its convergence of science, politics, religion and industry proves its ultimate point." The Guardian calls the series "perhaps the most important climate change multimedia communication endeavor in history."
A TV show is rated by the percentage of its target-demographic group watching the show – most often, adults 18–49 years old. The four Sunday evening episodes of Years of Living Dangerously, from April 13 to May 4, 2014, had ratings of 0.07%, 0.04%, 0.04% and 0.04% in that demographic. These figure do not include "on demand" viewers or the viewers who saw the show during Showtime's free weekend, May 9–11. Episode No. 1 has been viewed more than 500,000 times on YouTube.
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- Years of Living Dangerously, official website
- Years of Living Dangerously, Showtime website
- Years of Living Dangerously at the Internet Movie Database
- Episode 1: "Dry Season" (official video)
- Ian Somerhalder describes the series
- Thomas Friedman discusses the series on MSNBC
- Friedman and Cullen on Face the Nation at 16:05 and restarting at 23:50
- April 2014 interview with Joe Romm, chief science adviser to Years of Living Dangerously, on Democracy Now!
- The series' Tumblr archive