Celeb-studded documentary uses scientists, everyday Americans to tell less inconvenient truths

AUSTIN, Texas -- Arnold Schwarzenegger suits up with Montana wildfire-fighters. Harrison Ford visits Indonesian loggers. Don Cheadle rides with Texas ranchers.

But M. Sanjayan, the Nature Conservancy lead scientist who also appears in the forthcoming Showtime documentary "Years of Living Dangerously," avows that star power alone won't keep viewers engaged in the network's ambitious eight-part exploration of climate change.

Making "a show that's broadly appealing to people" is difficult because "unfortunately, probably since Nixon, the environment has become labeled with an agenda" that leans left, Sanjayan told attendees at this week's South by Southwest Eco conference in the Lone Star State.

Politicizing the environment, Sanjayan added, "isn't necessarily fair to all the Republicans who do care about the environment and to Democrats who think this is something they own."

Crafted by Schwarzenegger, film director James Cameron and two Emmy Award-winning "60 Minutes" producers, the new series aims to humanize global warming by examining its effects on everyday individuals in the United States and beyond. Other segments follow scientists Kim Cobb of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Paul Mayewski of the University of Maine into the field and into their homes.


"That's what's going to make this successful," Sanjayan said. "Whether or not you like Matt Damon, you will still fall in love with the characters."

Premiering in April, eight years after "An Inconvenient Truth" opened in theaters, the Showtime series notably departs from its predecessor's approach to climate storytelling. While that 2006 Academy Award winner fleshed out a static lecture from one famous narrator, former Vice President Al Gore, "Years" features far-flung locations and a vast cast -- from actress Olivia Munn to climatologist Michael Mann to former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) -- and does not avoid politics entirely.

One episode features "Ugly Betty" star America Ferrera looking at the funding sources of groups actively opposing action on climate change and finding an infrastructure that is "not solely about fossil fuels," Sanjayan said.

In addition, "Years" producers have reached out to members of Congress and the evangelical community to appear in the series.

The weather factor

The preview footage that Sanjayan unveiled at South by Southwest emphasized a burgeoning focus of climate activists: the connection between extreme weather events and rising greenhouse gas emissions.

The strength of attribution science that links weather to atmospheric carbon dioxide varies depending on the type of event at issue, but many scientists agree on a palpable climate-change effect on overall patterns rather than individual phenomena. That nuance has not stopped Democrats from adopting a communications strategy akin to that of "Years," spotlighting victims of natural disasters to press the GOP for action on climate (Greenwire, Sept. 17).

"We hit that hard with every scientist we talked to," Sanjayan said of the climate-weather nexus. "Absolutely, you can't pin any one" weather event on emissions, he added, "but the preponderance of the evidence suggests" that previously rare floods, storms and heat waves -- the subject of Damon's segment in the series -- are poised to become more common as warming persists.

Producers expect to make the first two episodes of "Years" available for free and to explore ways that teachers can use the series as an educational aid. Other boldfaced names set to appear include actors Michael C. Hall, Jessica Alba and Ian Somerhalder; New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who looks at the Middle East; and "60 Minutes" correspondent Lesley Stahl, who travels to Greenland.

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