On April 13, Showtime will premiere 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 (the first episode can be viewed in its entirety on the “Years” website).
Early on, “Years” creators Joel Bach and David Gelber consulted with YPCCC Director Anthony Leiserowitz about how to make the documentary mini-series as broadly appealing as possible. His advice came directly from YPCCC research on what Americans perceive and understand about global warming, and what kind of narratives might get people to take action on the issue. In an interview with Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies Communications Officer Kevin Dennehy, Leiserowitz describes some of the advice he shared with them — including insights from his “Six Americas” research.
Q: How did you get involved in this project?
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 full interview is available here.