Years of Recapping Dangerously

April 16, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

This article originally appeared on here.

When the premiere of your nine-part climate change documentary is up against Game of Thronespurple wedding and the return of Don Draper, it’s probably a smart idea to open with Indiana Jones boarding a fighter jet on his way to kick some Nazi ass.

Of course, it’s really just Harrison Ford on a plane loaded with CO2 sensors, but he is embarking for an exotic locale to confront an existential threat to humanity. “The world is going to be suffering … for a long time,” NASA climatologist Laura Iraci warns Ford. So I think I will just keep picturing him as Indy, if it’s all the same to you.

This is how Showtime’s Years of Living Dangerously opened last night, in the plum Sunday evening timeslot usually reserved for today’s top-flight TV dramas. And it’s a show that certainly uses its big budget and Hollywood heavyweights (James Cameron is behind it) to full effect. But can it compete with Westeros’ favorite drunk uncle, Tyrion Lannister?

The documentary series takes us around the world, sharing the stories of people enduring the impacts of climate change right now—in the hopes that a TV-drama-level treatment can finally make the urgency of this global issue hit home for American audiences. And perhaps the message might actually get through this time. Why? Because celebrities. 

In that spirit, we’re recapping the premiere episode (and if you like it, dear readers, the rest of the series) in the same style that every other site on the Internet is currently using to break down how not to throw a wedding in King’s Landing. (Tip: don’t piss off every single one of your guests.)

OK, back to Years. Before the credits even roll, we’ve not only watched Indy embark for Indonesia, but Don Cheadle head to Plainview, Texas, (how do you think Cameron sold him on that gig?), and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Thomas Friedman (yes! writers can be celebs, too) report from frontlines of the Syrian civil war. You might not need a “Song of Fire and Ice” wiki to keep track of all the locations on this show, but it’s clear the Showtime series’ producers plan to be ambitious.

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Cheadle (who once did a dark remake of Captain Planet, where the superhero turns people—and puppies—into trees) joins a group of unemployed workers at the old Cargill Meat Packing Plant, where we learn that a three-year drought has forced the plant to close and cost 1 out of 10 local residents their jobs. Y’see, without water, it’s tough to raise cows. Now every Saturday, the workers walk two miles around the plant praying for rain.

Drought plays a big role in Friedman’s segment, too. Suddenly we’re running through the streets of Syria behind a shaky-cam, trying not to get blown up. This is not a good place to be right now. Four years before the Syrian civil war started, the country was rocked by a crippling drought, and the resulting instability led to what is currently the world’s deadliest conflict. Friedman is heading across the Turkish-Syrian border into a war zone to get answers.

The message of this first episode of Years is pretty obvious from the start: Just like on Game of Thrones, where winter is a destabilizing force on all of Westeros (plus: ice zombies), climate change is having a similar impact on our non-fictional planet. Sometimes the impact is close to home, like in Plainview, and sometimes it’s far away, like where Indy’s headed. But like those white walkers, it’s inescapable.

Remember last fall when Indonesia threatened to deport Harrison Ford? Turns out, the hubbub was over questions he was asking for a Years segment on palm oil plantations. That Han Solo … he plays by his own rules. And he does it in lots of planes. Seriously, we’re only 20 minutes into the show and Ford’s already been in two jets and a puddle-skipper! Indy tells us that 20 percent of the world’s carbon emissions actually come from slash-and-burn deforestation, and every year we lose enough forest to cover all of Germany.

Lots of that deforestation is to make room for palm oil, which is a major ingredient in Oreos, Cheezits, soap, and pretty much everything else in the grocery store. In fact, the demand for palm oil is growing faster than any other agricultural product (see “Africa’s Vanishing Forests”).

Walking through the Borneo rainforest, Ford tells us: “The most remarkable and precious thing about this jungle is right under our feet.” I assume it’s a set-up for a classic Indy snake joke, but he’s referring to the peat. Indonesia’s forests sit on a layer of peat, which is carbon-rich vegetation slowly decaying on the forest floor. When the forests burn, so does the peat, and up into the atmosphere goes all its carbon. Just one of the island’s forests holds around a billion tons of carbon dioxide, roughly the equivalent of two-thirds the cars in Los Angeles.

“Wow,” says Ford, “that’s a lot of cars.” Then he hugs an orangutan.

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Meanwhile in Texas, Don Cheadle is finding that many locals, despite their current hardships, do not believe in climate science—even one rancher who recently had to sell two-thirds of his cattle herd due to the drought. “There’s only one man that knows how much rain we’re gonna get, and that’s God and he’s not a scientist, so I’m not putting much faith in what they say,” he says. Captain Planet resists the urge to turn him into a tree. After all, he’s here to help.

Cheadle sits down with renowned climate scientists Katharine Hayhoe, who is also an evangelical Christian. She explains why she doesn’t see a conflict between religion and the overwhelming physical evidence of climate change. “By studying science, we’re studying what God was thinking when he created the universe,” she says.

Cheadle heads to a local diner and drinks a very serious Diet Coke. The debate building within: “The more time I spend here the more I wonder, is there a way to discuss climate change without politics or religion getting in the way? Could this kind of discussion happen in Plainview?”

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Friedman returns to remind us how good we have it. Amid bombs, tanks, smoke, and rubble, he crosses into Syria to meet Abu Khalil, a Syrian opposition commander and former cotton farmer. Most of Khalil’s fighters are former farmers rising up against a regime that failed to help its people through the drought. “It is a revolution of freedom,” says Khalil. “And a revolution of hungry people.”

“This volatile part of the world is only getting hotter and drier,” Friedman says. “More droughts may mean more people displaced, more lives uprooted, and perhaps, more war. And we’d be very foolish to think it won’t affect us.” Indeed, it already has.

On the off chance that none of those storylines grabbed you, there are still more to come. (Two words: Arnold Schwarzenegger!) And Ford, at least, also appears ready for a sequel. “Oh, I can’t wait to see the Minister of Forestry,” he says at one point with an intense look in his eye. “I can’t wait!” Let him have it, Indy.

Jason Bittel

OnEarth news blogger Jason Bittel contributes to Slate and serves up science for picky eaters on his website, Bittel Me This. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and two tiny wolves. (Note: wolves may be Pomeranians.)

Tags: climate change, climate change communication, Years of Living Dangerously