Q: How did you get involved in this project?
I was contacted by one of the executive producers, David Gelber, who at the time, along with Joel Bach, was an award-winning producer at “60 Minutes.” They had this crazy idea of leaving “60 Minutes” to do a special hard-hitting investigative series on climate change. As they were beginning to put the idea together, he reached out to me to get my input on whether such a series would be of interest. And if so, how should it be told?
We had several long conversations over those first few months. Not just about the issue of climate change, but about the public response to the issue. David was very interested in our “Global Warming’s Six Americas
” research as a way of thinking about who their likely audience would be. He wanted to know what different Americans already understood — or misunderstood — about the issue. And he had other important questions: What stories should we tell? Whose stories should we tell? Who should the messengers be? Should we be using celebrities as correspondents? Should we be telling the stories of world leaders or the stories of everyday people?
Q: What did you tell them about the receptivity of the American viewer? And how did your ‘Six Americas’ fit into this?
First of all, I explained the Six Americas framework. I said the “Dismissive” are highly unlikely to watch or be moved by your show. The Alarmed, Concerned, and Cautious, however, are more likely to watch and get engaged. Even some of the “Doubtful” might be engaged, because most are not firmly committed to their position and many of them have never seen the powerful stories you’re going to tell.
One of the fundamental themes I hoped they would bring to the television screen is that global warming isn’t a distant problem. Many Americans, even if they accept the reality of global warming, still think of climate change as distant in time and distant in space. One of the things you’re going to have to do is help people understand that, no, this is also here and now. You can see the impacts of climate change happening in the United States not just in our backyards, but in our front yards.
The “Alarmed” are going to be the most motivated to watch — and that’s OK. One of the things they are really hungry for is a sense of hope. The “Alarmed” are about 16 percent of the American public or about 40 million adults — they understand that human-caused global warming is happening. They know it’s urgent to act. But many are not clear yet about what they can do individually or what we as a nation can do to solve the problem.
But the “Years” producers were also interested in reaching the middle groups: the “Concerned,” who understand it’s happening, but think of it as relatively distant in time and space; and the “Cautious,” who are generally still on the fence, who are still trying to make up their minds whether it is happening or not, human or natural, a serious risk or just hype.
Q: You talk about conveying a sense of hope. How critical is that to telling this story effectively?
Well, I really
emphasized that they should help their viewers understand the solutions. Don’t just give us another graphic description of the problem and how devastating the impacts are going to be. People desperately want and need to know what the solutions are and to see that the solutions are actually being implemented right now. And not just by presidents, but by everyday people who are putting solar panels on their roofs or the ranchers who are putting wind turbines on their farms — and who are finding that it’s a great way to build resilience to survive economically when there’s a drought. There are many stories along those lines.
Q: You’ve talked before about the challenges of telling the climate story, which is by its nature complex and very slow-moving. From what you’ve seen, do you think they’ve come up with a compelling way to tell this story?
I think they certainly know what the challenges are. One of the other things I told them – and from what I hear they have taken it to heart — is that it’s really important not to tell this story in the traditional frames that it has been stuck in. One of those frames is climate change as a science story, with a bunch of talking head scientists. It’s fine to have scientists in there, absolutely, but don’t make it just about the science. Another frame is climate change as an environmental issue. Not to overly simplify, but I’ll pick on one messaging approach: “We need to save the polar bears,” or “It’s about penguins” and other species, but not about us. You’ve got
to help people understand it’s also an issue with enormous consequences for human beings.