Ever since Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came out to critical accolades, Conservative scorn and a handful of Oscars, there has been no shortage of well meaning documentaries about the perils of climate change. Most feature a Hollywood celebrity or two, a liberal amount of liberal guilt, and a distinct sense of preaching to the converted.
The new Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously might have plenty of those first two elements but none of the third. In the first episode of the series –which has been released for free on YouTube (above) – Don Cheadle asks, “Is there a way to discuss climate change without politics or religion getting in the way?” Producers James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Weintraub try valiantly to answer that question in the affirmative.
The series features a variety of celebrities -- Schwarzenegger, Matt Damon, Jessica Alba – and celebrity reporters – Lesley Stahl, Chris Hayes, Mark Bittman – who investigate different facets of the topic.
In Cheadle’s segment, he tracks down an unusual figure in the heated, tiresome climate change debate – an Evangelical climate scientist. In a fascinating scene, she talks to the devout denizens of Plainview TX, trying to convince them that the drought that caused the closing of the local meatpacking plant – the town’s biggest employer – was the result of something other than divine will.
Meanwhile, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman traces the origins of the Syrian civil war to – you guessed it – climate change. He crosses into that war torn country (briefly) to discover that the seeds of the conflict were sown by the government’s indifferent response to a long-running drought.
But the most entertaining segment is Harrison Ford exploring the causes of Indonesia’s rapid deforestation. Apparently, palm oil – that anonymous ingredient in everything from cookies to chocolate bars – is such big business that it’s turning Borneo into a burn-scared moonscape. Who knew?
Ford’s charisma and gravelly baritone can turn the most inane line -- “That’s a lot of cars” – into something with almost Talmudic profundity. It makes for some riveting viewing. The show ends with Ford chomping at the bit to interview Indonesia’s utterly corrupt Forestry Minister. That meeting, which occurs in a later episode, promises to be a 60 Minutes-style smackdown. You think Mike Wallace was daunting? Try Indiana Jones.
Years of Living Dangerously premieres on Showtime on April 13.
For a more academic introduction to this subject, see Global Warming: A Free Course from UChicago.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.