Science, Tech & Environment

Harrison Ford joins Tom Friedman as climate change correspondents in a new Showtime documentary series

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Years of Living Dangerously

New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman is one of the only actual journalists among the correspondents on the new Showtime series on climate change, "Years of Living Dangerously." Friedman says behind the show's Hollywood production values is basic, old-style journalism.

Study after study suggests that many Americans don't understand climate change — and many don't yet buy it. They either don't believe that climate change is real, or don't believe that humans are largely responsible for it. That's left journalists scratching their heads and looking for new ways to report the story.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

Enter Showtime, with a new documentary series on climate change called Years of Living Dangerously.

It is clear from the opening sequence that this is, indeed, a different approach than you're likely to get on any news program. Though it was dreamed up by two former 60 minutes producers, it features action movie music and visuals right out of a video game.

And the first two "correspondents" you hear aren't journalists at all, but movie stars — Harrison Ford and Don Cheadle.

It isn't until almost five minutes into the first hour that you encounter the first real journalist — New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Friedman.

Friedman says the series' somewhat amped-up approach is an appropriate response to the "wicked problem" of climate change.

"It's wicked because it's slow moving," Friedman says. "It plays out over long periods of time, there isn't just sort of one moment. And it's the kind of problem where you'll never really know how serious it is, until it's too late. And therefore, it requires an enormous act of stewardship on behalf of one generation by another. And that's really hard."

Friedman says there are other challenges to conveying the scope and seriousness of the problem. One is that the people who know the most are climate scientists.

"They're extremely knowledgeable," he says, "but they're extremely, and rightly, careful about what they say. And they tend to speak in very technical language."

Then there are what he calls the "merchants of doubt."

"Just as there was in the case of tobacco," Freidman says, where supposed experts told the public "'don't believe those [other] people — tobacco doesn't cause cancer.'" Friedman says "the same people are active in trying to confuse people about climate change. Because they don't have to persuade people that they're right, they just have to inject doubt. And they're very good at that."

Years of Living Dangerously uses Hollywood-style production values and "celebrity correspondents" to create an allure that will attract people who might not otherwise watch a documentary series on climate change.

Even with the glitz, Friedman says for the most part, the project is just basic, old-style journalism. It uses the voices of real people around the world who are telling their own stories.

Friedman's own segments for the series focus on the role of climate change in contributing to unrest in the Middle East through extremely unusual droughts, heat waves and food supply disruptions.

He says the segments are "based on real, on-the-ground reporting. We try to put it into a broader context. We try to respect the fact that none of [these events] can be directly attributed to climate change, but everything that is playing out today corresponds with the models scientists predict of ... global warming."

As for the glitterati who play the roles of other "correspondents" in the series, Friedman suggests that they are hardly dilettantes.

"Harrison Ford is a long-time member of the board of Conservation International," Friedman says. "Harrison knows this field very well."

Years of Living Dangerously premiers on Showtime on Sunday, April 13.

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