While climate change has been largely overlooked as an electoral issue this year, it is receiving the attention it deserves in at least one place: National Geographic. This month, three new National Geographic documentaries have shed light on the serious consequences of climate change and the industry-funded forces standing in the way of finding solutions.
Environmental advocates expressed concern when News Corporation’s 21st Century Fox bought the National Geographic Society’s magazine last year, given founder Rupert Murdoch’s climate science denial. But National Geographic pledged it would maintain its editorial independence, and soon after, it published a special edition of the magazine focused on climate change.
Now, National Geographic is making another important contribution to the climate change discussion in two documentaries that aired back-to-back on its television channel on October 30, as well as a new film now playing in IMAX theaters.
The season two premiere of Years of Living Dangerously, a documentary series co-produced by James Cameron and featuring a range of famous actors, includes a segment about the utility-funded opposition to rooftop solar policies that are critical to fighting climate change. Saturday Night Live cast member Cecily Strong explores the battles in Nevada and Florida against net metering, a policy that allows customers to send excess electricity from their rooftop solar panels to the electric grid in exchange for a credit. In Florida, Strong interviewed a spokesperson for solar advocacy group Floridians for Solar Choice (FSC), who explained how big utility companies financed a front group called “Consumers for Smart Solar” (CSS) that is behind a deceptive anti-solar ballot measure. CSS was successful in garnering enough signatures to put its anti-solar amendment on the ballot, duping voters into thinking they were supporting a pro-solar initiative and thwarting a rival FSC petition that would have actually helped expand rooftop solar. FSC’s Alissa Jean Schafer told Strong, “The whole point” of the CSS initiative was “to confuse people,” adding: “The utility-backed initiative talks about solar choice but doesn’t actually give people any choices.”
CSS has gotten away with deceiving Florida voters in many of the state’s newspapers, too. Florida newspapers have published at least 14 op-eds by CSS co-chairmen Dick Batchelor and Jim Kallinger without disclosing their financial ties to utilities.
From Years of Living Dangerously:
In addition to Strong’s segment on the anti-solar initiative in Florida, season two of Years of Living Dangerously will feature many other “emotional and hard-hitting accounts of the effects of climate change” in the coming weeks, as National Geographic explained in a press release. In an interview with E&E News, David Gelber, creator and executive producer of the series, argued that the general public’s lack of awareness of climate impacts “allows debate moderators to ignore climate change as an issue,” and added that he hopes his series “does something to change” that fact.
In Before the Flood, a documentary directed by Fisher Stevens and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, DiCaprio interviews Penn State University’s Michael Mann, who explains that he and other climate scientists are up against the fossil fuel industry’s “massive misinformation campaign to confuse the public.” Mann explains: “Websites and news outlets and think tanks, they find people with fairly impressive credentials who are willing to sell those credentials to fossil fuel interests.” Key to this strategy, he explained, is the use of fossil fuel front groups “with lofty sounding names, like Americans for Prosperity or the Heartland Institute.”
Indeed, Media Matters has documented many occasions where fossil fuel-funded “experts” have misled on climate change in the media, including people affiliated with the groups Mann highlighted. Americans for Prosperity, which coordinated a misleading nationwide op-ed campaign against the Environmental Protection Agency’s landmark climate change policy, “frequently provides a platform for climate contrarian statements,” as the Union of Concerned Scientists has noted. And the Heartland Institute, which is known for its annual climate denial conferences, has sought to undermine important steps forward on climate including the pope’s climate change encyclical and state renewable energy standards.
Mann concludes: “These people are engaged in an effort to lead us astray in the name of short-term fossil fuel profits so that we end up leaving behind a degraded planet. What can be more immoral than that?”
The rest of Before the Flood takes viewers around the world to witness the impacts that climate change is already having, from the South Pacific, where sea level rise is an existential threat, to Miami, Florida, where millions of dollars are being spent to keep rising seas at bay.
The impacts of climate change are also the focus of another National Geographic-produced documentary, called Extreme Weather, which was released in IMAX theaters on October 15. The film aims to demonstrate “how climate change is rapidly affecting our land, oceans and atmosphere to produce natural disasters as ruinous as they are spectacular.” Director Sean Casey said in an interview that he wanted to show how climate change is connected to extreme weather with “powerful imagery that really does justice to what's happening.” Watch the trailer: