Titanic Climate Documentary Makes Reporters out of Hollywood Elite
James Cameron directed the two highest-grossing movies of all time, Avatar and Titanic. This week he premieres The Years of Living Dangerously, a nine-part Showtime documentary about climate change.
That makes him the ideal target for this question: 'Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic' is a common cliche about how international climate talks never seem to go anywhere. Given your work on climate change and the Titanic, that sound right to you?
"A more apt metaphor is that the entire crew of the Titanic before it hit the iceberg had been replaced by a bunch of monkeys," said Cameron, a National Geographic Explorer, who has visited the Titanic wreck a dozen times in submersible vessels. "There's a period of time when the iceberg's in sight, and you have to turn, but you're not turning. That's the period we're in" with climate change.
Our pre-wreck period is chronicled with precision and unprecedented production values in The Years of Living Dangerously. The first episode, made available on YouTube, follows New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, and actors Harrison Ford and Don Cheadle, as they search the ends of the Earth for answers to simple questions about climate change.
Celebrities add Hollywood bling but it’s their earnestness that draws stories from interviewees and makes it all compelling. That and the storytelling prowess of the executive producers, who include Cameron, Joel Bach, a three-time Emmy winner for 60 Minutes, and David Gelber, who's won eight for the TV news magazine. Before they came along -- with investor and climate change expert Daniel Abbasi -- and convinced Cameron a prime-time climate change documentary was possible, "I'd been beating my head against the wall for years trying to get something on the subject," Cameron said.
It was a natural project to do after Avatar, Cameron said, given what he called a "cognitive connection" between the new series and the environmental allegory of the 2009 movie.
Two chief scientific advisors oversaw the climate research: Heidi Cullen, chief climatologist for Climate Central, and Joe Romm, an MIT-trained physicist who worked for the Clinton Energy Department before launching the blog Climate Progress.
Cameron explained his standards for accuracy in documentary work (using a different part of his brain from the science-fiction generator, he said). “You have to look at the provenance of any statistic,” he said. “Where did it come from? How many people have signed off on that? Is it in peer-reviewed research? Are there dissenting voices? And are the dissenting voices minor enough that they don't need to be credited at this point?”
It's easy (for anyone predisposed to such a thing) to have science-envy of Cameron's documentary work. This is, after all, a person who developed his own vehicle so that he could strap himself in and drop to the deepest part of the ocean.
Journalism too rarely draws on the methods of science. To counter the trend, this blog post was prepared as a controlled experiment, sort of. Right after interviewing James Cameron by phone, I bumped into a different James Cameron -- the chairman of Climate Change Capital, a pioneer in international climate law, and a member of the advisory board of General Electric's Ecoimagination.
Control-subject James Cameron had a more sanguine view of the international treaty process and maintained the integrity of monkeys by not comparing them to UN climate negotiators. This Cameron co-authored one of if not the first legal paper suggesting there should be an international convention on climate change, in 1990. It's a little depressing to read today, because so little has changed about the problem.
Deck chairs? Titanic? Make sense?
"Sometimes," control-subject Cameron said, at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Future of Energy conference in New York. “It's very debilitating to hear the arguments go around and around and around,” ending up in sterile negotiating texts that go nowhere.
“I do believe it's possible to get a decent international agreement on climate change. I really do. I haven't given up on it.”
The two Camerons have never met, although the lawyer and entrepreneur Cameron was confused for the Avatar and Titanic director by several inattentive people at the World Economic Forum in Davos, in 2010, when the director appeared, too.
It seems unlikely Cameron and Cameron will arm-wrestle at the much-anticipated UN climate negotiations in Paris at the end of 2015. However, there are other options for a global reCameronification that mixes serious climate communication with serious climate finance and policy.
“I'm absolutely ready to share space with creative people so that we can visualize how life could get better having solved this problem,” said Cameron, the GE advisor. “It might well be the less we talk about [climate] as a problem that might end humanity, we might solve it -- without declaring as such that we're solving it. That's a visual challenge as much as it is a technical one.”
The Years of Living Dangerously debuts on Showtime on April 13 at 10 p.m.
More by Eric Roston:
- New dominance in renewable energy rises in the East
- What climate change means in dollars and cents
- Spring training, and spring, starting way earlier than usual
- This could be the priciest baseball park in the whole Atlantic Ocean
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