Climate and Opinion

In the first episode of the $20 million Showtime series on climate change, Years of Living Dangerously, which aired last Sunday, we meet a 46-year-old evangelical Christian named Nelly Montez. Montez was laid off from a local meatpacking plant that closed due to a drought. Every week she and other women march around the plant, praying for rain. The actor Don Cheadle, one of the show’s celebrity correspondents, asks Montez if she attributes the drought to anything. She says, “I think it’s biblical.”

With Cheadle at her side, Montez meets an evangelical Christian climate scientist and learns about global warming. As the segment ends, Nelly concludes that global warming is the reason for the drought.

Largely on the basis of this subplot, Years has garnered praise for making the climate story more accessible to non-environmentalist audiences. But if the first episode is any guide Years of Living Dangerously is doing nothing of the sort. Rather, the series is aimed squarely at the same upscale, liberal Showtime audience that has long been worried about global warming.

In the initial episode alone, the series attributes the civil war in Syria and the closing of the meatpacking plant to global warming. These are the kind of claims that a large body of social scientific research suggests are great at mobilizing liberals but turn off pretty much everyone else. Such fearmongering might be redeemed later were it connected to positive, unifying solutions. And indeed, in response to criticism, the show’s producers did promise this week in the New York Times that future episodes will be more solution-focused.

So perhaps we can expect segments in the coming weeks about how France scaled up nuclear energy to more rapidly reduce its carbon emissions than any other nation in history. Or how a Texas oil and gas man teamed up with the Department of Energy to release natural gas from shale, replacing coal and resulting in greater carbon emissions reduction in the US than in any other country in the world since 2007. Or perhaps there will be a story about Floridians working together to adapt to rising sea levels without thinking to fight over whether or not it is human-caused.

That is what a show that was serious about reaching beyond the usual liberal audiences would do. But, so far, the signs point in the opposite direction. The Years website has minimal information about solutions but conveys the impression that it is solar and wind not natural gas that is replacing coal. And Showtime is actually promoting a segment where New York Times food writer Mark Bittman rehearses standard environmental arguments against natural gas as a substitute for coal.

Even Years treatment of people like Nelly Montez is not what it seems. Showtime does not portray Nelly as a heroic figure fighting Norma Rae-style for a better life. Nor does it cast her as Erin Brockovich, a strong woman investigating the reasons for the plant’s closure. Rather, Showtime depicts Montez as a vessel to be filled with knowledge by Katherine Hayhoe, the evangelical climate scientist on a mission to educate her fellow evangelicals about climate change.

At Cheadle’s suggestion, Montez drives six hours to hear Hayhoe give a lecture on climate science. “God’s creation is telling us that the Earth is running a fever,” Hayhoe says from the podium, peering over what looks like an older church audience. Montez is seen taking notes. After the lecture, Montez tells Cheadle she now understands that greenhouse gases form a kind of “blanket” that heats the earth. “After I heard Hayhoe,” Montez says, “I thought if we start doing the right things and using the right things we could save our planet.”

And that’s the end of the segment. The forces of ignorance and disinformation have been defeated for the week. Cheadle and crew head back to Hollywood. Montez, enriched by her new understanding of anthropogenic warming, heads back to her brother’s house in San Antonio and to her $12 an hour job.

The Showtime producers have said they hoped to break through to the public on climate change by telling a story about ordinary people. But plainly, Years of Living Dangerously is aimed at an audience that identifies with the highly educated Hayhoe, not the working class Montez. Showtime chief scientist Joe Romm admitted as much on a panel discussion two weeks ago, telling a Washington audience that the goal of the show was in fact to create and mobilize “single issue voters.”

Romm told the panel, moderated by former Obama EPA chief Carol Browner and featuring New York Times columnist and Showtime correspondent Thomas Friedman that climate needs to become more of a “political issue” for the 2014 and 2016 elections, and made a pitch for Hillary Clinton as the presidential candidate who says climate change would be one of the reasons she would run for president. “It will be incumbent on all of us to become single issue voters…a very small vocal group can have a disproportionate impact whether they like rifles, the state of Israel” — “or the Keystone pipeline,” interjects Browner — “or the Keystone pipeline,” Romm agreed.

Understood in this context, the strategy of Showtime’s producers makes much more sense. The audience that enjoys shows like Weeds and Californication, is the same audience that gives money to environmental organizations, works for Democratic candidates, and is being called upon to vanquish the climate denying, fossil-fuel funded Republican Other.

What Showtime offers its audience is not a window into the life and struggles of Nelly Montez but rather a classic Hollywood conversion story. While Montez has to drive 12 hours round-trip to hear a lecture on climate science, the Showtime viewer gets to skip the lecture and join Hayhoe in literally and figuratively looking down on Montez in the audience. It is hard to imagine that such a portrayal is likely to convert many evangelicals to the climate crusading cause. But it does tell the Showtime audience exactly what it wants to hear. Keep lecturing about climate change, and sooner or later, people like Nelly will come around.

Photo Credit: Climate and Changing Public Opinion/shutterstock