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Changing climates

‘I’ll be back’: Hollywood takes on the climate crisis

EPA/Tal Cohen

The incredibly well-funded climate denier industry in the US will be dealt a severe blow this weekend with the release of a well-produced 16-episode series on climate change by the Hollywood elite: Years of Living Dangerously.

The first full episode, Climate Wars, airs tonight (Sunday) on Showtime. It is also being made available for free.

James Cameron (of Avatar, Titanic and Terminator fame), Harrison Ford, Jessica Alba, Matt Damon and Arnold Schwarzenegger are some of executive producers and actors who have worked on the series, which is supported by a celebrity group of climate science advisors. James Hansen, Heidi Cullen, Katherine Hayhoe and Michael Mann are among the science group that is working closely with the producers, actors and journalists turned “correspondents” for the series.

In a world where we are being told that straight “facts” are not enough to persuade the public of the urgency of acting on climate change, these superstars of screen might just provide the PR tipping point needed for the public to understand that other tipping point that so many are in denial about.

When celebrities endorse a cause, the attention of entire nations can be rapidly channelled through that endorsement. It is not so much that such endorsement will make people active, but that it at least creates an acceptance of the reality being portrayed.

This is because celebrities allow us to believe that the world is a knowable totality, and that we believe that they give us access to what matters in that totality.

The actors and journalists in the series communicate the science by taking on all-too-human stories from around the world. The impacts of extreme weather like Hurricane Sandy, drought in the Middle East, rising sea water levels and firestorms are at the front-end of these human dramas.

Doubtless, the wildfires impacting on Hollywood itself have been a great catalyst for this activism. Schwarzenegger declares that there is no longer any such thing as a bushfire season on the west coast of the US.

The series also looks at the causes of climate change: greenhouse gases, deforestation in Indonesia and global warming feedbacks like methane.

The opening episode even manages to re-write the history of the current Syrian war by pointing to the drought and famine “threat multiplier” that preceded the war, leading to the civil unrest and political conflict seen today.

Meanwhile, back in the US, the series deals with religion and climate change, finding the “biblical” experiences of those seeking to explain a seemingly permanent drought that has gone on for 15 years.

As the series goes to air, a spectacular climate event is evolving before our eyes in the Pacific Ocean. There is a greater than 70% chance that an El Nino is to form during the Australian winter.

US meteorologist Eric Holthaus described the El Nino as a “monster” which:

…might end up being the biggest global weather story of 2014.

The story centres around the Nino 3.4 region of the Pacific Ocean, south of Hawaii. According to Holthaus’ analysis, there is a sub-surface body of very warm water as large as the US that is coming to the surface as it travels east. In March, surface temperatures climbed dramatically in the Nino 3.4 area to as much as six degrees above normal for this time of year.

Holthaus believes that the coming El Nino could make 2014-15 the hottest years in recorded world history. The last super El Nino, in 1997-98, boosted global temperature by .25 of a degree, and brought so much energy to the surface as to cause 23,000 deaths and $35 billion in damages worldwide.

If that scale of warming happens again, the world could approach a one degree Celsius departure from pre-industrial times as early as next year. As climate scientist James Hansen has warned, that’s around the highest that temperatures have ever been since human civilisation began.

Paradoxically, the El Nino will bring some relief to the hills around Hollywood as it will almost certainly end the drought. In its place could be a deluge of flooding and mudslides, which hasn’t happened since – you guessed it – 1998, the year that the pause is said to have started, while the monster of energy that has gone into the earth’s oceans has continued at an accelerating rate.

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