Years of Living Dangerously is a new documentary series about climate change. Broadcast in the US by Showtime, the nine episodes feature Hollywood stars presenting different aspects of climate change.
The first episode, broadcast last month, features Harrison Ford looking at deforestation, peat and oil palm in Indonesia, Don Cheadle in Texas talking about drought, climate science, and religion, and Thomas Friedman in Syria looking at the role of drought in the civil war in Syria. The website bills climate change as “The biggest story of our time”.
Showtime has made the first episode available – it’s been watched on YouTube more than 500,000 times. If you’ve not seen it already, it is well worth watching:
The programme doesn’t just present the facts about climate change. It shows the impacts that climate change is causing to people in the countries it visits. With James Cameron as Executive Producer, it’s no surprise that the programme is dramatic and entertaining. But it also raises interesting issues about communicating about climate change.
In Texas, many of the people affected don’t associate the hardships they are facing with climate change. Instead, drought is an act of God. The programme shows a prayer meeting:
“Father we pray for the situation in Cargill, my God. You bring the moistures, you bring the rain. Conditions will change, my God. Because it’s your rain! It’s your spirit!”
Another man explains that, “Genesis nine says that there will always be seed time and harvest. And this business of these people saying that there’s going to be a calamity in weather is not true.”
“But what if it is true?” Don Cheadle asks quietly. The programme profiles Katharine Hayhoe, who is a Climate Scientist and a Christian. It’s fascinating to watch how she communicates the science of climate change with people affected by climate change in Texas, but who see drought as God’s will.
In Indonesia, Harrison Ford travels to the Tesso Nilo National Park in Sumatra. He flies over in a helicopter and we see the devastation inside the park. Vast areas of the forest have been cleared to make way for illegal oil palm plantations. Ford asks,
“If Indonesia’s Forestry Minister won’t even protect a National Park, what hope is there for the rest of the country’s forests?”
He adds, “I can’t wait to see the Minister of Forestry. I can’t wait.”
Ford’s meeting with Zulkifli Hasan, the Minister of Forestry, is shown in episode 2 of the series. When Ford confronts Zulkifli with the destruction of Indonesia’s forests, Zulkifli explains that Indonesia has not been a democracy for very long and that “the point of balance” will be found in the long term.
Zulkifli laughs when Ford mentions Tesso Nilo. “It’s not funny,” says Ford. He describes the destruction. “You saw it. You pledged a resolution. What have you done?” Zulkifli talks about democracy again. “We have just started with what we call reform,” he says.
Ford’s visit to Indonesia was in September 2013. The day after he visited the Minister of Forestry, Ford was all over the news in Indonesia. Zulkifli, it seems, was shocked that Ford raised the issue of deforestation and threatened to get him deported. Presumably, Zulkifli had momentarily forgotten the rate of deforestation in Indonesia – which doubled in the years 2011 and 2012, during a moratorium on new forest concessions under the Indonesia-Norway US$1 billion REDD deal.
The following day, Ford met Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Ford asks whether the moratorium is being respected. Yudhoyono replies that some people oppose it, but “I must do it. Because much can be achieved through this moratorium.”
Ford talks about the destruction of Tesso Nilo, the lack of respect for the law and the illegal forest clearance. He asks whether a law enforcement effort would help, at least to set an example. “I do not always know what happens in every corner of Indonesia,” Yudhoyono replies. “I understand this is not acceptable and has to be addressed.”
Ford travels to the Katingan Peatland Restoration and Conservation Project in Central Kalimantan with Russell Mittelmeier, president of Conservation International.
Ford brings up the importance of preserving peat forests:
“The most remarkable and precious thing about this jungle is right under our feet. What we’re walking on isn’t mud, it’s a thick layer of compressed, decaying vegetation called peat. Many of Indonesia’s forests sit on peat. And peat is full of carbon.”
Years of Living Dangerously is excellent in terms of communicating some of the realities of climate change. That is urgently needed, particularly in the US. And of course the forests that Harrison Ford visits in Indonesia should be preserved. But Harrison Ford is a board member of Conservation International. Not surprisingly, then, we don’t hear Ford raising any tough questions about carbon trading as a way of preserving forests.