Environment & the World

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Climate Change Documentary on Discovery Channel

Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Media — Cathy @ 11:27 pm

I just watched the Discovery Channel’s 2-hour special on climate change.  It airs again on Saturday at 8pm ET/PT.  See http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/globalwarming/globalwarming.html.  There is also a “live chat” with Dr. Michael Oppenheimer online after the program, which is interesting to browse through.

Overall I thought it was very well done.  It was rather focused on the scientific side, in the sense that all of the people interviewed were scientists.  In terms of visual appeal, it probably does better than Gore’s movie. (Maybe “appeal” is the wrong word … footage of flooding tropical islands is not very inspiring).

Some of the stuff on the “solutions” segment was interesting.  For instance, I have often been skeptical of the claim that we can make a major shift in our emissions without significant lifestyle changes.  But apparently the average American family can reduce its emissions 60% by improving the efficiency of appliances and cars and buying more local food.

There was also talk of what New York City has been doing to become more environmentally conscious (mostly green building design and more efficient cabs and buses).  Unfortunately they didn’t really substantially address the fact that public transit is not available in many places and, in cities where it is available, people much prefer cars to buses.  So the fact that NYC has more efficient buses is good, but it would be better if more people rode them.  I guess there wasn’t time to go into some of the more creative solutions that other cities have made to improve public transit (see e.g. the city of Curitiba in Brazil: http://www.solutions-site.org/artman/publish/article_62.shtml).  People will always prefer the most convenient method of transit, and if a bus system can be designed that is more efficient and faster than car travel (by having designated bus lanes), people will probably go for it.  In Curitiba, for example, the buses transport 1.9 million people every day!

 Still, even though the show was a little short on creative solutions, it definitely served its purpose.  The presentation of the science was fairly clear and unequivocal.  And the point that we can start taking action now with affordable, available technology is very important even if the show didn’t go into some of the more innovative case studies.



  1. Thanks for writing about this show! I actually wasn’t aware of it, and it sounds like something worth viewing. One thing I wonder is, to what extent do you think that part of its purpose is to “convince people that global warming is real”? I wonder to what extent that conversation and convincing still needs to happen among the U.S. public. From my personal experience, I’ve been rather surprised by the amount of times I’ve been asked by people–often college educated–whether I “really believe global warming is true.”

    Also, I’m really glad you brought up Curitiba. I heard a segment about it on NPR a while ago, and I thought it would be a great thing to write about. This clearly shows that public transportation can work on a mass level. NYC is also a good example, although probably more for its Subway system rather than its bus system. The Curitiba website you linked to mentions that the transportation system was part of a “Master Plan” of the city’s urban developers. I think this shows that for a public transportation system to work, it should preferably be planned along with the planning of a city.

    Comment by Amir — Tuesday, July 18, 2006 @ 1:26 am

  2. I suspect that a large part of the show’s purpose is to convince people that global warming is real. About 3/4 of the show was devoted to explaining the science and predictions for the future and only 1/4 for solutions. And fair amount of the “debate” on the message board was people accusing the show of using crackpot science. I think a majority of the American public believe in global warming now, but there’s also the question of making people realize how serious it is. I think many people are still of the mindset “oh, it’ll be a little hotter in the summer … ok”.

    On the other hand, I still wish that the show (and people who work in this field in general) had spent more time on solutions. I’ve often thought that we could side-step a lot of this process of convincing people that global warming is a problem simply by convincing them that the solutions make sense in their own right. (Of course, if you work for the oil lobby, this won’t work). But in general, why not support a more diversified energy system that would probably bring more manufacturing jobs to the U.S.? And who wouldn’t get behind an awesome public transit system like they have in Curitiba? When that was designed in the 70s, I’m sure that global warming was the last thing on their minds.

    Comment by Cathy — Tuesday, July 18, 2006 @ 9:09 pm

  3. Oh, also, I would argue that a surface transportation system like Curitiba’s has significant advantages over a subway system like New York’s. For starters, the upfront cost is significantly cheaper. (Or, at least, it is if you’re planning the transportation system hand in hand with the city … if you have to go back through afterwards and create designated bus lanes and such, it gets more expensive). Also, it’s much more flexible. The NYC subway hasn’t been expanded in about 60 years. They’re finally planning to add a new line and the first phase of the 4-phase project isn’t expected to be finished until 2013. I would imagine that it’s much easier to add new bus routes. But, I do agree with your point that public transit systems are best planned with the city.

    Comment by Cathy — Tuesday, July 18, 2006 @ 9:23 pm

  4. I agree with you that, in my mind too, many of the “solutions to climate change” are appealing in their own right and offer an array of benefits in addition to reduction in greenhouse gases. I think that entangled with business interests, and inertial are cultural disposition that are dominant in our society. For some reason, the notion of living sustainably–in a way that is as much as possible in harmony with the environment–does not hold much weight in the U.S.A. I suggest this because when people go about building a house or buying a car the first choice that most naturally comes to mind for many people is not necessarily the environmentally friendly one.

    I do think it’s important to gain a deep understanding of this culture that drives us to make the choices we make. For this, we can begin to comprehend the factors that drive people’s choices and perhaps try to change them. On a crude level, “conspicuous consumption” characterizes U.S. culture. Many people make (consumer) choices to gain social capital, to impress, to show off, to fit in. What is cool? Well, for many men its beneficial to showcase masculinity, and for whatever reasons, centuries of socialization and gender-role definitions have dictated that big, powerful, control, dominance=masculine. With cars, that most naturally parlays into Hummer-esque behemoths that look strong, and in our imaginations can dominate or outdo smaller “whimpier cars.”

    But that’s just one of many examples. We can also talk about what people interpret as cultural symbols that exude wealth–many of which, like masculine symbols, are not necessarily environmentally friendly. Of course it doesn’t have to be that way–these are, after all, social constructions. Certain organizations in the last decade or so have tried to make it a priority to redefine what it means to be environmentally friendly, or rather to broaden masculinity, and wealth, and cool to include environmentally-smart choices. This is no simple task, though; because at the end of the day, we run into trying to change social constructions that have been developing and reinforcing themselves for centuries.

    Comment by Amir — Thursday, July 20, 2006 @ 12:07 am

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