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Republican climate skeptic has on-air conversion in Showtime's ambitious 'Years of Living Dangerously'

There's a scene in Showtime's glossy new climate change documentary in which Republican Rep. Michael Grimm, a longtime skeptic, appears as if he's about to undergo a conversion of faith on global warming.

The Staten Island, N.Y., lawmaker is shown working day and night in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy to help victims in his district, including a woman who lost both her husband and daughter when floodwaters burst the second-floor walls of their family home. The climate has changed, Grimm allows early on, but he calls it simply part of Earth's natural evolution. Man's involvement, he said, is a political debate that he prefers to "leave out" of the discussion.

Later, though, he has a heart-to-heart discussion with former Rep. Bob Inglis, a conservative South Carolina Republican who was defeated by a tea party candidate in 2010, in large part because Inglis professed belief in climate change. Inglis encourages Grimm to consider why Republicans "have gotten in this spot of distrusting the scientists" and argues that representing an area devastated by Sandy -- which scientists say because of sea-level rise amplifying devastating coastal flooding will be in even greater peril when the next superstorm hits -- could give Grimm the political "room to move" on global warming, despite widespread GOP opposition.

When Grimm meets MSNBC host Chris Hayes for an intimate chat toward the end of the episode, the congressman confesses that he was moved to do his own climate research and has in fact evolved his position.

"The vast majority of scientists say it's conclusive. So I don't think the jury is out," Grimm says, and Hayes looks hopeful. But then Hayes asks what Grimm intends to do about it, and politics as usual is back in play. There's no "oxygen left in the room" to take on global warming in Congress, Grimm insists, not with immigration, jobs and other pressing issues at hand. As Hayes grows more frustrated, noting that Grimm's very constituents face serious threats, the lawmaker finally lays it on the line.

Belief comes, but political action might not

"Washington is not real life. ... You're talking the substance and the science. My point to you is, [that is] irrelevant," Grimm tells Hayes. "It's much bigger than me. I don't think Americans have the will to do it."

That is the fundamental challenge that "Years of Living Dangerously," the eight-part series that launched last night online and premieres April 13, offers to viewers. Will Americans resolve to act on the climate threat, which the world's leading climate science body says is unequivocal? And, more to the point, will they push political leaders to make the difficult economic choices needed to cut carbon?

Produced by James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger, "Years of Living Dangerously" puts a human face on sea-level rise, melting Arctic ice, deforestation and other problems associated with the rise of greenhouse gas emissions. It also fields a platoon of famous faces to act as newscasters, like Harrison Ford cuddling an orangutan while exploring deforestation in Indonesia, Schwarzenegger riding along with hotshot crews fighting a wildfire in Montana, and Don Cheadle investigating drought in Plainview, Texas.

The show uses real reporters, as well -- Leslie Stahl of "60 Minutes" is featured, as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Thomas Friedman. And the creators insist the Hollywood tinsel isn't gratuitous. One condition of doing "Years" was that celebrities had to already be involved in environmental causes and would commit to going out in the field -- sometimes for months -- to report their stories.

Still, executive producer Daniel Abbasi told ClimateWire, in the end, the creators knew that harnessing star power like Cheadle, Matt Damon, Jessica Alba and others would be key to making a climate change series successful.

"With an issue like climate change, there's a tendency to look away. It's just so unpleasant. But these are people that are irresistibly watchable," Abbasi said. At the same time, he said, the creators wanted to get away from what he called the "expert-driven" discussion on climate change that the public has appears reluctant to embrace. "The issue has been treated in a fairly cerebral way -- graphs and charts and statistics," he said. "The path to urgency is really through emotion."

Sequel coming to 'Inconvenient Truth'?

He and others involved in the series acknowledge that "Years of Living Dangerously" will inevitably be compared to the other climate change documentary, and the ultimate in using graphs and charts to tell a story -- former Vice President Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." The Academy Award-winning 2006 film, for which a sequel is reportedly being discussed, ratcheted Americans' interest in global warming to unprecedented levels.

"One of the bigger things to happen to the climate change discourse in America was 'An Inconvenient Truth.' And who would have figured that, that Al Gore, the symbol of boring, doing a movie based on a PowerPoint presentation, would end up being a movie that people would bring dates to? But sure enough, it did," said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.

Can it happen again? And can star power change entrenched views on such a divisive topic? Thompson has his doubts.

"When it comes to things like climate change, most adults have already dug in their heels one way or another," he said. "Rather than Harrison Ford or Arnold Schwarzenegger being able to change your mind about climate change, it's more likely that Harrison Ford or Arnold Schwarzenegger appearing [in a climate change series] can make you change your mind about Harrison Ford or Arnold Schwarzenegger."

Some involved with the "Years" project say the goal isn't necessarily to change entrenched opinions. Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said nearly half of Americans neither are committed to fighting climate change nor have deeply held doubts.

"There's a wide group of Americans who are alarmed or concerned about this that's close to 40 percent. We're also aiming at this vast sea of 40 percent in the middle who I just think are on the fence," Romm said. "They know something funny is going on with the weather, and they've read about climate change, but it's not something they focus on.

"This is the story of the century. This isn't something that you cannot pay attention to," he said. "These stories are ultimately going to become everyone's story over the next several decades. If people know in advance what is coming, then they're going to make better decisions."

Abbasi says the documentary tries to be respectful of all views on climate change, citing as an example an episode in which actor Ian Somerhalder (whose credits include "Lost" and "The Vampire Diaries") interviews North Carolina climate activist Anna Jane Joyner. Joyner's father, a mega-church preacher, does not believe in climate change, and the episode traces the family's political fault lines as well as the state's.

A pitch to fence-sitters

"We very respectfully treat all points of view, and that continues throughout the series. We show that there is a set of evangelicals for whom the weather is the province of God. And so to start saying there's a human dimension is a challenge to a worldview," Abbasi said.

"Our hope is that in being very authentic and very respectful of those voices, that evangelicals will watch this program, that in the South, where climate change has been perceived as an Al Gore issue brought to us by Northeast liberals, that we'll break through," he said. "We approach this with a lot of humility, that there is an entrenched discourse right now. It's very politicized, it's not easy, but we hope ["Years"] is a vehicle for people to get together to talk about it."

Abbasi, who founded a venture capital firm aimed at funding low-carbon energy solutions and served as an appointee for four years at U.S. EPA under former President Clinton, says his favorite segment is the one on Superstorm Sandy. Though it's the least star-studded episode, Abbasi says the struggles Grimm goes through over how to address the influence of climate change on his district's devastation are a microcosm of all the larger issues at play.

"There are some moments where he talks about political courage, and that's ultimately the challenge we have," Abbasi said. "I think there are a lot of people who don't feel they can publicly come out and say they believe in climate change. ... I hope that more political leaders find their voice, and that the public requires them to find their voice."

In that scene, Grimm -- who did not respond to a ClimateWire request to discuss his views or the series' portrayal of him -- listens to Inglis' pitch that Republicans should eschew the apocalyptic warnings of environmentalists but still presses for "reasonable risk avoidance." Inglis now runs the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, which advocates for a price on carbon.

Grimm looks on sympathetically but warns that he's not coming over to Inglis' side anytime soon.

"If Republicans start coming out, and let's say that they did agree to the science and were bold enough, had the political courage that you have, if they believed it, to go forward -- and then they lose. Well, how many others ..." Grimm trails off before adding of his GOP colleagues, "They're not lemmings. They're not going to all go right off that cliff."

Inglis says he understands: "In a way, I'm the worst person to try to convince you, because, I mean, look what happened to me."

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