It's happening again, a TV presentation intended to wake people up to the challenge of the age. n 1983 ABC screened a movie called The Day After. It depicted the results, in the region of a heartland city, of a nuclear exchange.
This week, Showtime features the first of a 9-part series on climate change. Called The Years of Living Dangerously, the series was initiated by veterans of 60 Minutes, is presented under the aegis of big-name producers (James Cameron of Avatar, Arnold Schwarzenegger), and stars celebrities acting as roaming interviewers.
Go back to the 1980s: Why did President Reagan evolve from being solely a hard-liner to proposing to Gorbachev, at the Reykjavik summit in 1986, the elimination of all nuclear weapons? It had much to do with the nuclear freeze movement that drew a million people to Central Park in 1982, and with the fanciful Reagan hope of protecting the U.S. from nuclear weapons with an anti-missile system ("Star Wars"). The change may also have been encouraged by a film that, for millions, changed nuclear war from an abstraction to an imaginable possibility.
If you were a director looking back over a career that had included making the best of the Star Wars films (and writing The Seven-Per-Center Solution), why would you declare, in your memoir, that "the most worthwhile thing I ever got to do" was a made-for-TV movie shown on a single night?
True, the subject was the scary danger that had hovered over the life of a generation, and the audience was a record 100 million. True, a private screening at the White House helped bring an almost miraculous change in President Reagan, a happy man who wrote in his memoir that he had been profoundly depressed by the movie. Apparently, Reagan realized emotionally that nuclear bombs were not only a symbol of power but also a horrifying reality that could wreck his country.
The director of The Day After, Nicholas Meyer, had been attracted by the very "banality" of the screenplay because he felt it could thus get past the almost automatic denial otherwise aroused by the gruesome subject. In Meyer's memoir, he judges the film as not very good, but says that was a blessing. "I knew that if people discussed the movie instead of what the movie was about, we'd have failed. I wanted all the script's banality to work for me, to entice the audience past our subject matter until they were drowning in it."
The new Showtime series, Years of Living Dangerously, is anything but banal, to judge by the first episode. It uses a brilliant technique of going around the world to explore carbon-releasing activities and extreme weather, through the eyes of celebrities who act as surrogates for the audience. In the initial episode, for example, Harrison Ford discovers mass deforestation in Indonesia, Don Cheadle talks to victims of persistent drought in Texas, and Tom Friedman ventures into Syria and finds that the civil war there was caused, along with other factors, by an absence of rain, then an absence of government response.
These correspondents come off not as experts but as investigators. They ask some of the questions we care about, and listen as we would. Except they are, for instance, Matt Damon (of the Bourne series) , Lesley Stahl (of 60 Minutes), and Ian Somerhalder (of Vampire Diaries), plus many others. They model the process not of already knowing, but of being open to learn.
To be sure, there are several differences between the nuclear danger in the 1980s and the climate change issue now. In the early 1980s Randy Forsberg led the huge nuclear freeze movement and in 1982, the year before the ABC movie was shown, attracted a million people to Central Park for a demonstration. Today, the climate change movement is best known for opposition to a pipeline for pumping synthetic crude oil south from Alberta to Texas (decision pending), and for a campaign for divestment from carbon-based fuel companies on the part of cities, pension funds, universities and others (Harvard, so far, has said nyet).
Years of Living Dangerously has some advantages. It's not a one-shot effort, but a series that will last the rest of the spring. And it is not fiction, but a series of far-reaching investigations conducted by celebrities and well-known journalists. Unlike An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's path-making slide lecture of 2006, the Showtime series focuses less on graphs than on people hurt by extreme weather arguably made more frequent or intense, or both, by climate change.
In the 1980s, the perceived danger was that the West would somehow be defeated by the "red menace." Now, the future foreseen by climate scientists would bring big trouble for humans as a species, including, for example, extreme weather, food shortages caused by drought, heat, and floods, mass migrations, diseases in what are now temperate zones, and eventually a rising sea. Do we belong on the endangered species list, along with the Asian elephant, blue whale, common chimpanzee, giant panda, Japanese crane, snow leopard, wild water buffalo, Bactrian camel, California condor, mountain gorilla, red wolf, southern bluefin tuna, and many others?
While nuclear war has not occurred, the most awkward feature of climate change is the lag (which some have said is as long as 40 years) between emission of greenhouse gases and their worst effects. We could have nuclear war in a few hours, and on several occasions, nearly have. The effects in the U.S. could be easily dramatized, as in The Day After. By contrast, the possible effects of a changing climate are delayed, disparate, far-flung, and hard to attribute. Years of Living Dangerously makes a big advance by showing the early suffering in human terms, in time, the producers must hope, for the worst to be avoided.