Climate Change’s Cultural Tipping Point

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Conservation International / Ami Vitale

When James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger get together, good things tend to happen. But instead of Terminator-sized explosions, you might expect something that's a bit more humane on Years of Living Dangerously. Both men are executive producers  (along with Jerry Weintraub, Joel Bach, David Gelber, and Daniel Abbasi) for Showtimes's new series about climate change which premieres Sunday, April 13. This is the most ambitious climate change documentary to date, with a huge cast of actors and experts that travel the world to see the impacts first-hand. Mark Bittman investigative Union Beach, New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy; Harrison Ford travels to Indonesia to see deforestation; and Arnold Schwarzenegger heads into the burning California forest with a team of Hotshots. We caught M. Sanjayan, the most travelled host in the series and lead science correspondent, to talk about his around-the-world journey to explore climate change first-hand, from under the waters by Easter Island to the top of a 20,000-foot volcano. 

It's been eight years since An Inconvenient Truth, the most successful climate change documentary. This seems like the exact opposite, less about data and more about people.
M. Sanjayan: An Inconvenient Truth was the ultimate sort of synthesis job. If you were looking to give a primer on climate change in 90 minutes, that's how you would do it. If you want to understand what climate is doing to people, to communities, to places we care about today, then this is the show to watch.

So this is more based in reality?
Imagine there is a massive war going on and with the backdrop of this war going on, we're going to go in here and we're gonna investigate these stories. Every story would be colored by the war, but the story is still the story.

Because climate change is like war?
Climate change is by far the biggest influencer that's gonna coming down the pipe for the human civilization, probably ever. So it's the lens through which we should really look at everything – because it has such profound, dramatic, and sometimes cataclysmic effects.

You're the only host who is a scientist on the show. What was your goal?
I was very keen that climate scientists don't come off as plain or, you know, geeky. I wanted them to have a real personality because we sort of strongly felt that if the audience gets to see the care with which these scientists do their work, extraordinary lengths to go to do it. But to also realize that they're real human beings, they have families, they have homes, they actually become more believable.

What was the most dangerous moment?
We went to Chile, and we had to go up to this top of Tupungatito volcano, on the boarder of Chile and Argentina. It's about 20,000 feet at the top and we planned to drop back down into the crater to drill this ice core. That was what the plan. We set out with the 12 people, but only eight made it to the top. One guy fell off his horse and broke his shoulder; another got kicked in the head by a mule; and someone else got such a bad altitude sickness that he had to be evacuated out of there

Why was it so treacherous to get up there?
In part because we were doing it so fast. We had a base camp around about like 11,000 feet for a few days to acclimatize. But we went from there to the top in one day and back.

How do you get ice cores from a volcano?
There are these giant glaciers of ice that formed within the crater of these old volcanoes in the Andes, and we had to go into this crater so you sort of go to the top of it and you come down the lip a bit. It's a collapse crater with ice sheets that are hundreds of meters thick, and they're very old and very stable. You have to rope up, get into the crevice, and and then drill a core. Then you bring the ice cores back down the mountain and get them all the way to the University of Maine. The ice lab is there, run by Paul Mayewski who asks really kinda cool questions: 'Can climate shift rapidly?' or 'Is it a slow gradual thing?' So if it's slow and gradual, we're ok. We can adapt but if it happens quickly. But in five years, 10 years, 15 years, that's too fast for most human civilizations to shift.

What was your favorite shot location? 
Christmas Island was pretty awesome. That story has become one of my favorite stories of all time. It's the largest atoll on the planet and it's one of the remote totally specific atolls. We went to Christmas Island because there are corals there, because it's smack in the middle of the Pacific, and very close to the equator. If you want to know what the temperature of the ocean is, in the Pacific, in the past, this is a place to go figure it out.

We had to dive under water with a massive drill, I mean big – a hundred-plus pound drill. And then drill coral cores out from the bottom of the sea. It wasn't high current, but industrial diving means you're diving a lot, you're diving pretty stripped down, and you also have to now maneuver this giant object with all these hoses and all these ropes, wires and everything. The person I did this with is a woman named Kim Cobb, a really well-known climate scientist from Georgia Tech.

What do the coral reefs tell us?
Coral reefs grow in different ways based on the temperature of the ocean. There are two Isotope of Oxygen and they assimilate those Isotope 16 and 18. The ratio of these two isotopes determines how warm the water is, very precisely. By drilling these coral cores, you can go back hundreds and hundreds of years and tell me exactly what the temperature of the Pacific was on any date in the history of the coral. Her data is useful in figuring out whether these models work or not.

What are you hoping your audience takes away from Years of Living Dangerously?
I want two things. The overt one is what President Obama said in the State of the Union. Climate change is a fact. We have got to act on it. I want a nail to be put into that coffin. I want people coming out going 'yep! The science of climate change is pretty damn thorough and I'm not going to anymore and sit there and go 'Well, some scientists disagree.' The primary task that I have is to make sure the audience understands and believes the preponderance of evidence supporting human made climate change.

Do you think the documentary will have an impact on public opinion?
At the end of the day I actually think the film is going to tip the needle. I don't think anyone ever has assembled such an astonishing team with such an astonishing budget and given them such latitude to tell the story in the really in-depth way. I think at the end of the day, this will change hearts and change minds. That's they key, that it does a bit of both.

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