There are many ways of communicating messages on climate change or sustainable energy. Celestine Bohlen writes in the New York Times about a new documentary that has recently been released.
Adjusting the Tune on Climate Change
For a week in November, people across the United States were complaining bitterly about the cold. Record low temperatures were experienced in 43 states; in some northern regions, residents had to dig tunnels to get out of houses engulfed by as much as seven feet of snow.
The freakish cold snap hardly rates in comparison with the devastating floods, fires and droughts that have recently afflicted other parts of the world. But it is another example of how extreme weather has become a global reality, one that is putting the contentious issue of climate change squarely in the middle of everyday conversations.
“Everybody is starting to understand that weather is doing something strange,” said Marilyn Weiner, director of “Extreme Realities,” a documentary produced by her husband, Hal Weiner. The film is making the rounds of American universities and civic groups ahead of its television premiere in December.
The film, narrated by the actor Matt Damon, argues that climate change has geopolitical consequences, which in turn have implications for American national security. Natural catastrophes have stoked wars, political instability, a surge in refugees, even terrorism.
Somber experts — from the World Bank, the Pentagon and the world of environmental sciences — tell the camera that the quickening pace of climate change can only be halted by concerted international action.
How many times have we heard that before? Almost every year, the World Bank has put out a devastating report on some aspect of climate change. Last month, in a report entitled “Turn Down the Heat,” the World Bank warned that if nothing is done, global temperatures will rise by 4 degrees Celsius, or 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit, by 2060, creating a “cataclysm” for poor countries.
The Weiners have been making documentaries about the environment since 1992, with notable success; their films regularly appear on PBS channels and college campuses across the United States. Despite these credentials, for “Extreme Realities,” their latest film in a 13-part series, they had to turn to crowdfunding when their usual package of grants fell short.
Getting the message out is never easy; getting people to listen is harder yet, particularly on a subject as elusive as climate science. The trick is to find a narrative compelling enough to reach a wider audience, the Weiners said.
“This time, we have tried very, very hard to find a subject that people on both sides would be interested in,” Mr. Weiner said. “That subject is weather; everyone is interested in weather, and everyone is interested in terrorism.”
The film reveals little-known connections between weather and political upheaval — as, for instance, when a supercharged jet stream split in two in the summer of 2010, causing a heat wave and wildfires in Russia, and massive flooding in Pakistan. The failure of the Russian grain crop contributed to a spike in bread prices in the Middle East, which in turn stoked the Arab Spring uprisings.
In the United States, climate change has become such an overpoliticized issue that it is hard to reach across what has become an ideological divide.
“Those on the right made it a wedge issue, with the result that half of the country still doesn’t believe in climate change,” Mr. Weiner said.
In 2006, the award-winning film “An Inconvenient Truth” did capture the public’s attention. The problem was that it became associated with its narrator, Al Gore, a prominent Democrat who served as a lightning rod for conservatives who maintain that climate change is a hoax. “I wish someone else had done it,” Mr. Weiner said.
This time, the Weiners made a deliberate attempt “not to preach to the choir,” as they put it. And in screenings around the country, they have found that “Extreme Realities” has indeed resonated more than usual, even among conservative audiences.
“We are getting basically two questions,” Mr. Weiner said in a telephone interview from their studio in Washington. “How does extreme weather and national security affect us in our hometown, and what can we do?”