Telling the Climate Story: Yale Researcher Advises on Showtime Series

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

On April 13, Showtime will premiere the first episode of “Years of Living Dangerously,” a big-budget, nine-part documentary series illustrating the impacts of climate change across the planet. Among the executive producers are Academy Award-winning director James Cameron and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

While other filmmakers have tackled the problem of climate change before, “Years” creators Joel Bach and David Gelber wanted to make sure this story would resonate with as many viewers as possible. Early in the process they consulted with Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

In an interview, Leiserowitz describes some of the advice he shared with them — including insights from his “Six Americas” research.
tony leiserowitz portrait Anthony Leiserowitz

Q: How did you get involved in this project?

ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: 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?

LEISEROWITZ: 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?

LEISEROWITZ: 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?

LEISEROWITZ: 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.
You’ve got to help people understand it’s also an issue with enormous consequences for human beings.
— Anthony Leiserowitz
It’s also important to get beyond the politics. The politics is an important story, no doubt about it. But unfortunately global warming too often gets stuck in peoples’ minds as a shouting match between Democrats and Republicans. It turns a lot of people off, or gets others set in their respective political identities where they can’t even see the problem or solutions because they’re so busy reacting to the partisanship.

So I encouraged the “Years” producers to try to break the issue out of these three narrow frames and help Americans see other dimensions that are just as important, or even more important. Global warming is a human health problem. It has enormous economic consequences. It’s a story of faith and morality — religious traditions are taking this issue on. It’s a national security issue. And so on and so forth.

I also encouraged them to think broadly, not just about the stories they tell, but the messengers they use. For example, it might help to have a story where your lead correspondent is a professional race car driver. You might appeal to an audience that doesn’t normally pay attention to this issue if you have one of their favorite athletes explaining why global warming matters.

Q: You mention the importance of de-politicizing the film. Another film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” also reached mainstream audiences. But, fairly or unfairly, it was also saddled with political implications because of Al Gore. It’s become a cliché at this point.

LEISEROWITZ: We actually studied this: What was the impact of “An Inconvenient Truth”? What we found is that a remarkable number of people saw the documentary and were moved by it — and Al Gore and the filmmakers deserve enormous credit for that. But viewers also tended to be liberal Democrats with higher education, to be women, and so on. A lot of people hear that and say, “Oh, so he was preaching to the choir.” No — if you’re going to use that metaphor, I think he was actually preaching to the congregation. The choir is the people who show up at church every day to practice singing from the hymnal. The congregation is the people who show up once a week, or less, and don’t really know that much about the issue. Many viewers were mainstream Democrats who liked Al Gore, trusted Al Gore, and had voted for Al Gore, who were willing to plunk down 12 bucks to see the guy give a slide show for goodness sake. Most didn’t know much about global warming before seeing the movie, but came out mobilized by a powerful film and a powerful message delivered by someone they trusted.
In the end, we have to remember that the climate system doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican.
— Anthony Leiserowitz
But for every person the movie engaged, there were at least as many who were turned off because they disliked Al Gore long before “An Inconvenient Truth.” They disliked Al Gore because he was vice president to Bill Clinton, himself the subject of deep partisan divisions. And then Gore was a central protagonist in the most contentious and divisive presidential election in modern history in 2000. A few years later, as he released “An Inconvenient Truth” he was also leading the criticism against the Iraq war and the George W. Bush administration. Which only further exacerbated the perception in many people’s eyes of Gore as a partisan political figure.

It’s not like these people compartmentalize and say, “Oh, there’s Al Gore, the former vice president and presidential candidate and hyper-partisan” separate from “Al Gore, the communicator of climate science.” No — human psychology just doesn’t work that way. And we still see that in our research today: Many ‘Dismissive’ — when they think of global warming, they think of Al Gore, feel intense dislike, and thus disregard his message.

In the end, however, we have to remember that the climate system doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. It’s not like Hurricane Sandy only destroyed the homes of Democrats and not Republicans. It’s not like the historic drought in the Great Plains only destroyed the livelihoods of liberals and not conservatives. The climate just does not care about our political divisions. In the end we have to come together as one nation and work together if we’re going to reduce the risks of dangerous climate change. I hope the “Years of Living Dangerously” will help us start the real debate — not whether or not global warming is happening — but how we should act to protect ourselves and others from harm, while creating a better, healthier, and more abundant world we can be proud to pass on to our children.