Review: Years of Living Dangerously

This evening, I was lucky enough to catch the DC preview of Years of Living Dangerously, James Cameron’s new climate change documentary show. (I was not lucky enough to realize in advance that the preview took place during the World Bank spring meeting, so I was a little underdressed, but never mind that.)

I was a little trepidatious, because I’d heard that the show focused entirely on the scariness of the crisis, without mentioning possible solutions or reasons for hope. When I mentioned this to my family, they told me that I shouldn’t be surprised: it was James Cameron, after all. The first act would all be nothing but doom followed by more doom; there would also be evil corporations, running through corridors, and a last-minute save that came at great cost.

Having now seen the first episode, I actually feel happier about the balance of doom and hope than I expected to. There’s certainly a lot of scariness, but there are also a lot of heroes, and a lot of discussion of what needs to be fixed.

One of the first segments is on palm oil, which is a good choice since it nicely balances a connection to viewers’ everyday lives (it’s everywhere in your grocery store) with adventure in less familiar locations (evil corporations are illegally burning down Indonesian rain forests). And of course, Harrison Ford holding an orphaned baby orangutan.

Harrison Ford With Orangutan - screenshot from Years of Living Dangerously

Harrison Ford is holding an orphaned baby orangutan. Your arguments against climate change are irrelevant.

The “solutions” part of the segment focuses on what corporations are (and aren’t) doing to improve their supply chains. It’s obvious that the viewer can do something—buy fewer products with palm oil, demand that companies improve their sourcing—but equally obvious that the major onus is on the companies who provide, and purchase, the stuff in bulk.

I wonder if communication experts haven’t been neglecting the importance of James Cameron’s direction. From the first shots of NASA planes trick flying through canyons to get air samples, to the hypercompetent female scientist solving the mysteries of El Nino, to the final shaky-cam runs through a battle in Syria, the whole thing is framed as an action movie—or as multiple mini action movies that build up to the full picture. In an action movie, even when things seem hopeless, viewers know there is hope. I wonder if Cameron isn’t doing something very clever here: by depicting climate change in this way, fighting it—however slowly, however steadily—becomes a heroic act, and one that we can feel confident will eventually have results.

It could make a real difference to give viewers that kind of script for the small, sometimes frustrating, actions that could save the world.

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Where Do Green Minds Come From?

My earliest deliberate piece of environmental activism was nagging my parents about recycling. This was before recycling moved into the category of “chores liberal households do by default.” Certainly a different era from my current household, where our biggest recycling problem is that the town won’t give us enough bins.

I was an environmentalist a long time before that, though. I’ve thought about this since, as I try to raise my own kids—and thought of it specifically a couple of days ago, when an old acquaintance from Cape Cod, Harriet Jerusha Korim, asked me on Facebook about raising environmentalists:

 Question: how and when do we talk with kids (and parents and regular old Earthlings including ourselves) about climate change and intergenerational (in)justice? Can we grow beyond the era in which our brains evolved and rise to these challenges in time? How do we start (and not lose sleep, courage– or a sense of humor)?

What I said, mostly off-the-cuff, was:

When I think about talking to kids about climate change, I think about how I was raised on Cape–lots of very concrete experience with the natural world, and everyone taking for granted that the way we treat our environment affects not only our well-being but our own identity. What I’ve heard since is that this is ideal–if you tell little kids about big, hard-to-understand-abstract problems, they’ll just get scared. If you give them a connection to the natural world (and tell them things like, “We walk to the store/eat vegetarian on Monday/turn off the lights so we can take care of nature, because it takes care of us”), you eventually get adults who have a familiar way to frame environmental action.

This is based both on experience and research. Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods covers some of that research, which has continued in the years since he published. Children (and the adults they turn into) understand what they see, hear, touch, taste. They value and learn from the things around them that are concrete and sensible—and that their parents teach them in a concrete, sensible way to value and learn from.

A kid who learns about rising temperatures in school will feel scared, maybe guilty, probably a little helpless. A kid who goes to the beach and learns the names of barnacles and mussels, and maybe picks up some trash, will know not only that they’re part of the natural world, but that they can choose to make it better.

It didn’t hurt, growing up, that Cape Cod is a place where everyone has a very strong sense of those things. An April Fools article that made me giggle yesterday was about how the North Truro Air Force Station was hiding the existence of aliens:

 The secret was almost spilled three years ago when we needed to build a bigger bunker to hide this stuff. But, when the plans went before the Cape Cod Commission, it was rejected as a “non-conforming development of regional impact.”

The Commission is a fact of life on Cape—if you want to build something, you have to explain how it’s going to affect the land. And this doesn’t go on behind closed doors. Everyone argues about it around the dinner table. Kids learn that environmental impacts are a choice, and something you should expect a say in.

Obviously not everyone raises their kids on Cape. But everyone raises their kids somewhere with green space and animals (even if only a park full of squirrels), and can teach them the names of animals and trees (or look them up together in a guide). They can talk about the decisions that affect that little piece of nature. And maybe they can bring along a trash bag—and a recycling bag—and give their kids the opportunity to start making things a little better.

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Update on the Peas, Plus Bonus Links

A couple of weeks ago—well after the time that Spring started in DC last year, and the year before that—I posted this picture of our garden:

garden plot

Last week, since it was in fact the middle of March, we finally planted the peas, and also the strawberry plants. Today the garden looks like this:

planted garden

The Arctic can go home any time now. Have some links for an unseasonal snow day:

Real Climate wants better graphs of historic climate shifts.

Sense About Science has a nice round-up on the AAAS “Planning for Hazards” panel.

The Capital Weather Gang says that focusing on extreme weather events doesn’t get across the severity of climate change, and lets people ignore climate whenever we aren’t having a major storm.

The Senate’s big climate all-nighter doesn’t seem to have had the desired effect.

The Guardian wants to know why we haven’t had a Manhattan Project for climate. (Possibly because that model doesn’t work when the breakthroughs needed are intrinsically social.)

This is a really cool project to try and restore the Colorado River Delta. Although it’s also representative of why the Anthropocene just freaks me out sometimes.

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Planting Peas in a Changing Climate

We’re arguing about when to plant the peas. They’re one of the first crops that can go into a garden, 2-4 weeks before the last chance of frost. In DC, that would normally be the beginning of March. However, with the weekly snowstorm blustering outside, it’s hard to be sanguine.

This is where the peas are supposed to go.

This is where the peas are supposed to go.

A couple of years ago I sat in on a demo of Games for a New Climate—a set of low-tech activities that the Red Cross/Red Crescent uses to start conversations about planning for climate change in agricultural communities. The game started out fairly basic. We each had to decide which of two kinds of crops to plant. A die was tossed—most numbers meant a normal season; high and low meant an unusually wet or dry season that would wipe out one of the crop types. You could hedge the risk by spending some of your profits or taking out loans. It was all relatively predictable, and after a few rounds most of our little “community” could get by from season to season.

Then they took away the die. In its place they put some very odd-shaped object—a bottle or a twisted piece of plastic, I don’t remember—but something that meant we could no longer predict the odds of extreme weather, except that we could guess that there would be more of it. “This is climate change,” and suddenly the game became much more challenging.

Climate change doesn’t just push our peas slowly from Zone 7 into Zone 8—it makes all the zones less predictable.

One of the most remarkable feats of genetic engineering in human history is the transformation of teosinte into corn. (I promise this is related.) Teosinte, a wild plant, can still be found all around Central America. It grows a few tiny kernels at a time over the course of a season. Its ears are about an inch long and are less nutritious than a single corn kernel—not particularly worth eating or growing. Ancient Mesoamericans bred corn from teosinte during their agricultural revolution: a feat of skill, patience, and imagination. Corn differs more from its ancestor than any other major crop, current or historical.

However, the required imaginative leap may not have been quite as huge as previously thought. Grow teosinte at the CO2 levels of 14,000 years ago, and the seeds come in all at once, closer together, instead of a couple at a time over the course of a season. Still not the world’s greatest food, but easier to harvest and use—something you can picture trying to improve on.

Climate change affects not only when you plant crops, and whether you get to harvest them, but the actual form those crops take.

My household isn’t dependent on our crop of peas. But we are, ultimately, dependent on somebody bringing in a good crop of peas, or corn, or beans or potatoes. And we know that planning is going to get harder—not just for us, but for everyone.

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A High-Stakes Game Against Nature: How to Act on Climate in an Uncertain World

On the last day of the AAAS meeting, I sat in on a fascinating session on hazard prediction and risk mitigation.  What’s fascinating, you ask, about risk mitigation?  It sounds like something you read about on your insurance forms.  But predicting danger—and particularly figuring out the best way to handle the uncertainty in those predictions—is at the heart of discussions over climate change adaptation.  As Seth Stein said on the panel, “society plays a high-stakes game of chance against nature in a very uncertain world.”

Here’s a thing that I learned, not at this year’s AAAS, but many years ago at a psychology conference.  The “right” trade-off for hurricane evacuation decisions, in terms of damage avoided and lives saved, is to order an evacuation when there’s a 20% chance of a direct hit from a strong storm.  Twenty percent.  That means that four out of five evacuations will result in everyone coming back and announcing, “Well, that was a lot of fuss over nothing.”  And unfortunately, the one time that the evacuation really makes a difference, a lot of people will ignore it because of the four times it turned out to be unnecessary.

Getting back to AAAS, climate response is even harder than hurricane response because we don’t get multiple iterations.  The full-on climate change version of Hurricane Katrina isn’t something we can learn from and do better with the next planet.  (Okay, maybe it is, but the Hundred Year Starship seems like a hell of a plan B.)  The one-off nature of climate tipping points means that we ought to be willing to act on small probabilities—and even more willing to act on the very large probabilities that we actually have for most of the really important climate hazards.

What’s really tricky is that we are still uncertain about some important aspects of climate change.  This is very hard to talk about in public, because deniers will leap on any admission of uncertainty and treat it as uncertainty about climate change as a whole.  This makes adaptation more difficult, because many of the real uncertainties take the form of, “We don’t know whether we’re at greater risk of Bad Outcome A or Bad Outcome B.”  Other uncertainties… I was kind of freaked out, at an earlier panel, to learn that agricultural models only predict the effects of climate change for 10 or so of the world’s important crops—we have no idea about hundreds of others that we depend on for food and medicine.

Exploring those possibilities could help save lives—but only if we can learn how to treat uncertainty as something other than all-or-nothing.

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The Glaciers of Wrath: What Artists Can Do About Climate Change

After an extremely boring adventure involving two canceled flights and almost 22 hours on a train, I spent today happily wandering the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Chicago. AAAS is my favorite scientific conference. It’s not specific to any one discipline, so it’s a good place to get caught up on all of my interests and pick up a few shiny new ones.  It also has a nice density of per capita Twitter users, which means that I can kinda sorta be at all the cross-scheduled panels I’d really like to go to.

One of the thought-provoking bits from today’s Twitter stream was a suggestion about the relative role of scientists versus humanists in dealing with climate change:

On a strictly literal level, that might not be true—scientists are the ones who figure out what’s going on with climate change in the first place.  On the other hand, what we have now really is a liberal arts problem: how to convince people to act, and how to organize that response. What we actually need, then, are more and better ways to connect science and the liberal arts to deal with climate change.

This is not a particularly novel observation, and a lot of those connections already exist. Scientists and artists meet at salons, cruise the Arctic together, collaborate on poetry and paintings and music.  Many scientists are artists, and artists can now join in citizen science efforts. And yet, the same challenges that make climate so psychologically difficult to address—it’s big and amorphous and too slow to easily attract attention—make it difficult to address artistically.

We know there are human impacts and human stories, things that could make for great drama. And yet, as far as really well-known climate art goes, we have a lot of documentaries and The Day After Tomorrow. I can list a dozen great non-well-known books and songs, but not with that kind of recognition. Climate change has yet to produce a Grapes of Wrath or The Wire or a Top 40 protest song—and we need one.

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Voicemails From the Future: Great Tools for Making Climate Local

This morning I hid a voicemail from the future.

Or I happened to be present when the message from a warmer future leaked backwards in time, and landed in Canal Park in Southeast DC. Take your pick of realities. I was helping out with Futurecoast, a newly launched alternate reality game that helps people explore how climate change might affect the everyday details of their lives, even down to the messages they leave for friends and family.

The voicemails appear as small DaVinci-esque abstract sculptures.  The FutureCoast site predicts the approximate time and place where they’ll arrive, and teams on the ground go out to search for them. Then the messages are decoded so that we can use them to try and piece together what the future looks like. For example, there’s one slightly skeevy robocall selling floating mobile homes to people who regularly get flooded out. I don’t blame them for letting that one go to voice mail!

My chronofall was at noon, and found less than 2 hours later:

FutureCoast strikes me as particularly interesting in contrast to a tool highlighted by Huffington Post a couple of days ago. The US Geological survey has put out a program that lets you see how high temperatures are expected to go, right where you live. I love USGS, and think they do great work with crowdsourcing and social media–Did You Feel It, for example, is an intuitive, easy-to-use tool for reporting local experience with earthquakes.

The NEX-DCP30 Viewer, on the other hand, will give you one piece of relatively abstract information. After “a few clicks.” In Celsius. (Unless it hangs up your browser, as it just did mine. So I still don’t know about Maryland, and I promise that I’ll never again compose a blog post in a browser window without backup.)

To be fair, I’m not sure that USGS actually intended to use NEX-DCP30 for outreach–Huffington Post may just have latched onto it because there are relatively few tools that really do make climate local, concrete, and easy to understand. What I love about FutureCoast is that you don’t have to translate temperature into what you really care about–how will this affect my community? How will this affect my family? How will we respond? No one knows the answers for sure, but it lets you speculate, and play with the possibilities.

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