How to Make Global Warming Look Like a Movie

As their Emmy Award-winning doc series moves to the National Geographic Channel, the producers of Years of Living Dangerously talk about tricking viewers into learning about the climate.

Years Project / Showtime

What does it look like to talk about climate change on TV? One answer has been Years of Living Dangerously, a documentary series which features celebrities and journalists traveling the world and telling stories about how people are already affected by the changes convulsing the globe.

Last week, the Emmy Award-winning Years was picked up for a second season, which will air starting in October 2016. The announcement got some attention thanks to the involvement of several celebrities. David Letterman announced he’ll be joining Don Cheadle, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Cecily Strong as one of the show’s correspondents, making Years his first TV gig since leaving The Late Show. But it caught my attention for other reasons. First, Years is switching from Showtime, where it originally aired, to the National Geographic channel. NatGeo has many more viewers than Showtime—a larger audience!—but it’s also owned by Fox, which itself is owned by the climate-change denier Rupert Murdoch. Earlier this month, when Fox finalized its purchase of National Geographic magazine, many worried publicly that the journal would no longer be able to continue its climate coverage.

But I had other questions, too. How did the show’s executive producers, David Gelber and Joel Bach, think about presenting the climate-change story to a mass audience?  Both were 60 Minutes alums: How did they relate their work with Years to that older program and the newer documentary series, like those from Vice? We talked by phone last week. This interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity.

Robinson Meyer: I saw the new season is coming out on National Geographic. Was that before the Murdoch purchase was announced?

David Gelber: Oh yeah, it’s been in the works for about a year.

Meyer: Have you heard anything about the new ownership?

Gelber: Well, you know, Fox has owned NatGeo for a while. It’s owned the channel for a while. I think the most recent deal has to do with other National Geographic properties. But we were really impressed with what NatGeo did last year, and Fox did run it as well, with Cosmos, the Neil deGrasse Tyson show. Which did a whole hour on climate change, and it was a terrific hour. So we’re not particularly concerned about editorial interference. I think we’re feeling very comfortable with being on a platform that’s so much bigger than the one we were on last time.

Meyer: Could you talk about what you’re trying to do with the show?

Joel Bach: There’s a number of things. One thing is to tell the human story of climate change, and that’s something we felt, prior to season one, hadn’t really been told. So real stories about Americans and people around the world who are being affected by climate change right now, as opposed to telling the story of climate change as some kind of distant, far-off problem that’s only gonna affect polar bears.

And then just linked to that is just telling great stories, with dramatic outcomes, uncertain endings. Riveting storylines, not a bunch of talking-head interviews stitched together with B-roll, but following stories over the course of a year. We always hoped we would have more than one season and we always hoped that each season would be another year of living dangerously. Season one, we had some people who outright denied climate change at the beginning of the filming, and by the end of the filming, because they had been so exposed to the realities of it, had come around to accept it as real.

Gelber: We came from 60 Minutes. And we had a lot of training there in terms of figuring out how to do stories that a large audience would want to watch. We certainly learned about the importance of characters—how we don’t do stories about issues, we do stories about characters that have issues connected to them. I remember telling [60 Minutes creator] Don Hewitt that I wanted to do a story about acid rain and he said, Gelber, we don’t do stories about acid rain, we do stories about people who do something about acid rain.

I think we also decided that 60 Minutes has a tendency to be something of a radio show. It’s not mainly visual; it’s mainly strong characters and people talking. And Joel in particular has a strong visual background, and we were really determined to do something cinematically with the show that had not really been done before, on an issue like climate change.

We’re doing this because this is an issue that television has handled very poorly. There’s been unbelievably little coverage of the most important issue of our time on network television. We would realize this at 60 Minutes. We used to have these fantasies about doing documentaries or even feature films just about climate—we both have young kids, and this is the most important story of our time, and we wanted to just do it and just do it in a style that people would really care about.

Meyer: You mentioned that 60 Minutes is mostly a radio show. And it’s interesting to me because the really popular, the buzzy documentaries like Vice, are also essentially news magazines. Do you think what differentiates them from the older news magazines is their visual sense?

Bach: Yeah. I mean I think that’s part of it. Vice has this brand which is cool, hip, young, and edgy, and they have that going for them. When you look at Vice’s shows, they’re actually very similar in kind of style and content to 60 Minutes. They’re a straight-ahead news magazine. And I applaud Vice for going big on important stories in a different way—we’re trying to do something different, so it doesn’t look like a typical documentary or even news-magazine show. In the style of shooting, it’s meant to really look like a scripted narrative. And the reason for that is we want it to be visually exciting, we want people to watch it.

They turn on the TV, they see Matt Damon driving down the highway. And because we have car mounts—cameras rigged to the hood of the car—they think, what’s this new Matt Damon movie? And hopefully they get sucked in and before they know it they’re watching a documentary. There’s all these tricks that are used in dramatic filmmaking that we are borrowing as much as we can. We obviously can’t apply all of these because, still, it’s a news-doc show, but wherever we can we’ve applied these tricks of the trade.

Meyer: Can you give me another example?

Bach: There’s a couple. One is this thing which we call the POV sequence. You see in movies all the time—a sequence will open with what the character sees, it’s their point of view. And let’s say the camera is traveling through a jungle. You don’t know who you’re with, yet, you just know that you’re in a jungle. The next shot, the camera is looking back at the person who’s walking through a jungle. And the third shot is on the other side of the person again, looking over their shoulder.

So what it does is, the first shot places you inside the head of someone. So you’re experiencing the world ideally through that person’s eyes. And then it shows you who the first person is, and then you’re over their shoulder, and they may walk up to someone and start talking to them, and you’re over each person’s shoulder as they talk. So we filmed Years the same way. That’s one technique we used. We wanted to get the viewer inside the head of the characters and we wanted to see what the characters see. The goal was to create a more emotional attachment to the characters in the stories.

Meyer: A lot of the work tied to Years was linked to some social science, that telling people stories was how to convince them to action on climate change. How did you find that, what’s that research like?

Bach: We had a research intern—and this was five years ago now—spend an entire summer reading all the social-science literature on climate-change communication, one paper after another. And then we had this researcher put together a meta-analysis of all these papers to find what they were saying in terms of what’s effective and what’s not, in terms of driving people toward action. The main headline was that emotionally gripping storytelling, where you really get invested in characters and their stories, is the magic sauce—or the secret sauce—for getting people to act. So we said, “that’s great! that’s what we learned at 60 Minutes, and we’re gonna make it even more hopefully more emotionally powerful the way we filmed this show.”

[Bach reads from an impact report collected by Years:] “Of the 13 million people during the first six-month window of the show, half of those people acted in some form. Nearly a third shared information about climate change with others as a result of watching the show, about a quarter were encouraged to seek out more information. One in six viewers voted in an election as a result of Years”—which seems remarkable to me. And one in five viewers tried to change another person’s mind on climate change as a result of watching the show.

And then we also found that nine in 10 viewers saying they learned something about climate change from watching the show, with nearly half of those saying they learned a lot. So I think that’s partly because we have all these celebrity correspondents who have their own followings, and we know from our Facebook pages that a lot of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fans didn’t know he cared about climate change. But they watched the show because they were big fans of his. And so I think that’s why you have people who learned a lot about the issue from watching it.

I still don’t quite understand how one in six people cast votes on account of watching Years. We really didn’t know what kind of impact this show was going to have. It’s really impossible to gauge that, you can only know tangentially from things you read on your own Facebook or Twitter pages.

Gelber: We knew from the get-go—people say, how do you do a show that isn’t just preaching to the choir?—and we certainly knew that there’s a large segment of the American population that is simply not going to watch a show on climate change. And that we weren’t going to be very efficient into turning climate deniers into people who accept the consensus of climate scientists. But we did feel that there’s a lot of folks in the middle who kind of know it’s real, but haven’t done a whole lot about it, and I guess our goal from the beginning was to elevate the engagement of those people from, say, a five on a one-to-ten scale to an eight. I think that the research confirms that that’s what’s been happening. As this issue gets more traction, just because of Mother Nature, a lot of people who are sitting on the fence or passively sympathetic are getting much more involved and much more active.

We’re seeing interest especially on college campuses, just a tremendous increase in the amount of interest in this issue. And we’re gonna be addressing this and that generation very directly in the second season.

And we’re also, by the way, doing a better job than we did in the first showing that there really are solutions to this, things that can be done that would make a difference. It isn’t just a total downer about what’s happening, and we have some really fascinating stories both about political action and about some of the technology, renewables, and electric vehicles and so on.

Meyer: I feel like that’s changed, even since you filmed the first season.

Gelber: Yeah it has. It absolutely has. And we do see this as—a story that we’re all at the knife’s edge in a race against time, and whether or not the consequences of climate change that we know about, which are happening faster than scientists thought they would, will outpace the technological and political response to it. Or not.

Meyer: It’s scheduled to start in October 16. Are you thinking about how it will play into the election at all?

Bach: You always hope to have some kind of impact. We’re going to be making a lot of noise leading up to our broadcast. We’re going to be releasing clips, we have a lot of making-of stuff.

One of the things that’s motivated us for years now is the depressing fact of the 2012 debates. There were three of them, and not once did climate change come up as a question or a response with Romney or Obama. And I wonder what historians 20, 30 years from now are going to think, looking back at that election cycle, and wondering why the single most important out there was totally ignored by the two leading candidates. I hope that won’t be the case in 2016, and I hope we can have something to do with putting it on the radar screen.

Bach: Another reason for making this program is to tell people that Al Gore isn’t the only one who cares about this issue. Several years ago at least, a lot of people only identified the issue with Gore. They said this is his pet concern, and why the hell am I gonna worry about it if it’s just Al Gore? Al Gore is a personal hero of mine, but I wanted—we both really wanted to have this big ensemble cast as part of our messengers of this issue. And that’s why we enlisted this big field of celebrities and journalists on this issue, to show how many people care about this issue, are working on it, are affected by it, to say it’s not just a niche issue.

The goal of that was to popularize climate as a concern, and to get it to be an issue that would be talked about in the president elections. So it’s not this kind of niche thing that can be ignored.

Meyer: I hear increasingly that climate is going to be a really big—a serious issue—in the presidential election. Not to ask you to put on your wizard hats, but, do you anticipate it being a big deal in the general election?

Gelber: Yeah, I do. Yeah, I really do.

Bach: It helps obviously to have the Pope come out on this. This is a big concern of his. That’s just another voice that really needed to be out there. It was wonderful he did that, that Pope Francis was that kind of figure. But I think, in general, people are more willing to talk about climate change. They’re not scared to talk about it. I remember when the Dixie Chicks did an Iraq War project, they were kind of vilified for taking a public stance on this issue. That didn’t happen with us. The folks who participated in this show were celebrated for taking a stand on this issue.