Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Brokaw on Climate Change

A couple of months ago, in a posting on the release of the film "An Inconvenient Truth," I questioned whether Al Gore was the best person to convince climate skeptics of the reasons for concern and prompt action. At the time, I couldn't come up with an alternative who would be credible to those not already disposed to believe. In retrospect, I'm surprised I didn't consider Tom Brokaw, who hosted Sunday night's Discovery Channel special, "Global Warming - What You Need To Know." His down-to-earth charm and low-key delivery worked well in a two-hour program that combined ominous predictions with striking visuals. If I weren't already convinced, would this show have changed my mind? Quite possibly.

This program, a co-production of NBC News and the BBC, covered four aspects of climate change: the evidence, the contributing factors, the consequences, and, perhaps most effectively, our responses. The producers clearly have a strong point of view that humanity's actions are changing the climate, possibly irreversibly, and that the evidence of this is all around us. They traveled to the Arctic, Antarctic, South Pacific, China, Brazil, Patagonia, Australia, and various other places to put that evidence on film, and they interviewed an impressive array of climatologists and environmental scientists, including such well-known figures as NASA's Dr. James Hansen.

Although I'm not sure I'd call the presentation balanced, since absolute even-handedness clearly wasn't its purpose, it addressed many questions often posed by skeptics, including what makes this round of climate change different from those the earth has experienced in the past--beyond the simple fact that we're here to observe it firsthand. It looked at the degree to which some of the evidence of climate change might equally well be attributed to naturally-occurring cycles, and it also tackled the rapidly growing emissions in the developing world, particularly in China, in a forthright manner. On the whole, though, caveats were few and far between, and serious outcomes such as rising sea levels and mass extinctions were presented as strong likelihoods or virtual certainties. I'd have chosen a greater emphasis on risk, rather than prediction, but that may be one of the many reasons I'm not in the business of producing TV shows.

(As an aside, it occurred to me as I was watching this presentation that attitudes about the predicted consequences of climate change might by affected by one's views on evolution. If you start with a belief that the earth is only 6,000 thousand years old, for example, it might be difficult to fit all this into your worldview.)

The real reward for me--having heard all the arguments before--came in the last few minutes, when some clever animation made the daily "carbon footprint" of an average American family visible as little black chunks of carbon emanating from appliances and spewing out of vehicles, accreting to hover above each home--and later a whole city--as giant (50 tons/year) blocks vaguely reminiscent of the alien spacecraft in "Independence Day." One of the biggest problems associated with climate change is that we're dealing with invisible gases and consequences removed from their emission by many years; making them visible was a brilliant stroke.

Finally and somewhat surprisingly, given the program's deadly serious tone, there was a sustained positive note throughout: it isn't too late; we can solve this if we tackle it now. That worked nicely with Mr. Brokaw's natural, Mid-western optimism. I still haven't seen "Inconvenient Truth," so I can't compare the two. I'm also not sure what it says about NBC's commitment to this message that they chose to air it on the Discovery Channel, rather than on the parent network in prime time. You can catch the reprise this Saturday evening on Discovery.

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