By Pamela Doan
During a screening of the first episode of the new Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously, I was moved to tears by the power of the stories of people whose lives have been affected by climate change. Premiering this Sunday (April 12), at 10 p.m. (the network has already posted the first episode online, below), the one hour-show will run for nine weeks exploring the impact of climate change around the world. It’s significant that one of our neighbors here in Philipstown, Garrison resident David Gelber, is the co-creator and an executive producer of the series.
Each episode involves three story lines with a cast of correspondents that includes luminary actors and activists Matt Damon, Harrison Ford, Jessica Alba, Don Cheadle, Ian Somerhalder, and Olivia Munn, and respected journalists Thomas Friedman, Lesley Stahl, and Mark Bittman, among others. The correspondents travel the world to sites in Syria, Greenland and Indonesia and stay right here at home visiting parts of Staten Island, Texas, and Louisiana, too, as well as many others.
Describing their intention behind the series, Gelber said, “This isn’t a typical television documentary. It’s something that you’d want to watch whether you thought climate change was real or not. The idea basically was to marry storytelling with strong characters and uncertain outcomes, to the biggest issue that we’re living with. Not to lecture anybody, not to show them graphs, but to take a different approach.”
For example, there’s an episode about Anna Jane Joyner, a climate activist in North Carolina and her father, Rick Joyner, one of the leading right wing evangelists in the country. The episode explores their relationship as they try to reconcile their different beliefs.
“Ten years ago, people were still thinking that the effects of climate change wouldn’t really be felt for decades,” Gelber said. “That’s no longer true; climate scientists will tell you that the impact and the pace of climate change is faster and greater than they were imagining a decade ago.”
That Gelber has produced a groundbreaking work like the Years Project isn’t surprising, for 25 years he was Ed Bradley’s producer on 60 Minutes and has been recognized with every major journalism award. “I did a couple stories about climate change and thought my God, this is the biggest story out there and it isn’t getting the attention it deserves,” Gelber said. “I’ve been in 10 war zones, doing a whole bunch of different stories for 60 Minutes and I loved every minute of it, but I have two little kids, and I wanted, in part as a gift to them, to spend the rest of my life working on this issue.”
Gelber’s frustration with the lack of attention devoted to climate change in the media and from legislators is evident. “We’re looking at a media that is either outright hostile, like Fox News, and willing to ignore overwhelming scientific evidence, or climate change is treated as a story but there are points where you say that this debate is settled.”
Joel Bach, the other co-creator of the Years Project, was Gelber’s associate producer at 60 Minutes and he was very interested in working on climate change, too. They landed on the idea of doing a theatrical documentary and wanted to get a celebrity cast involved. “We had a connection to Jerry Weintraub and got a meeting with him,” Gelber said. “Jerry’s no Hollywood leftie, but he got it.” Weintraub, one of the most influential people in Hollywood, jumped in as an executive producer and lent his support.
Next they got support from James Cameron, the acclaimed filmmaker, who also signed on as an executive producer, and committed to get different movie stars involved. Cameron’s caveat was that he wanted a social media strategy that gave viewers a way to take action on the issues that were presented. Here’s another local connection: Garrison resident Arturo Aranda’s company is handling the social media campaign for the series and another resident, Radley Horton, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems Research, was a science advisor for the series. Follow @YearsofLiving on Twitter for updates.
Gelber’s aims include harnessing the influence of viewers to alter the direction we’re headed on climate change. “We already know that if we’re going to keep the global temperature change at 2 degrees, we need drastic action now. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been very clear that we have to be on a carbon budget and figure out pretty quickly how to switch to renewables.” The IPCC recently released their fifth report and includes in part these findings: “… the worst is yet to come, food supply at risk… citing the risk of death or injury on a wide scale, probable damage to public health, displacement of people and potential mass migrations.”