A Backstage Pass to Climate Reality

A Backstage Pass to Climate Reality

Written by Katie Carpenter, PGA Green, Green Media Solutions

The best seat in the house for the “24 Hours of Reality” show that Al Gore and his peeps put on last week was backstage, where the most surprising—and sometimes most controversial—action went down. Turned out the event was less about science than it was about communications—and the challenges of communicating about climate change were never more visible, or more daunting.

In their new informational video, “Climate 101”, now making the Web rounds,the narrator talks about how the time has come in the climate change debate for the proverbial s**t to hit the fan (and they illustrate that concept beautifully in the video). But the proverbial s**t was hitting the fan all night long backstage at Manhattan Studios on West 34th Street in New York City.

It all went down in the Green Room, the hallways, the makeup room, and behind the big black curtain on the stage itself. Scientists, communicators, movie stars, government reps, and just regular people like me, all wandering around, all night and all day, looking for guidance on what it was OK to say about climate change.

That IS the big question, as many of us see it—what is it OK to say, that won’t produce a “rebuff response”, the boomerang effect, as some people call it. Andy Revkin put it best: “Our polarized politics and buffet-style media menu—in which anyone with a strongly held position can validate it with the touch of a remote control or a mouse—guarantee persistent, even sharpening, divisions on climate change.”

Of the possible menu of assignments from 8PM Wednesday to 8PM Thursday, I was assigned to the 1 AM—2 AM hour—but I was OK with that, as the region to be covered was Hawaii. I knew there were some indisputable impacts of climate change there. Birds nesting on low-lying islands being inundated by sea level rise—black-footed albatross, laysan albatross—and even the Hawaiian honeycreeper, which lives at higher altitudes, is being threatened by climate change too, in weird ways.

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Pull the scroll bar to about 43 minutes and 30 seconds in our hour to hear about these remarkable and now very endangered birds. Thanks to excellent guidance from Audubon experts who briefed me on the impacts of climate change on birds and their habitats—I felt confident I could talk about these things, at least in brief.

The producers told me my Call-Time would be 11:00 PM, and that I should be over at the studios on West 34th Street by that time to get into make-up. Bring two outfits, they said, nothing too garish, no white, no black (no black? This is NEW YORK!). I checked it out the Web, saw a groovy scene was developing there, couldn’t resist going over early.

My “TALENT PASS” gave me access to every corner of the operation—the Control Room, VIP Holding Room—but the action in the hallways was much more interesting. Little snatches of conversation I heard during the course of the night really surprised me. Maggie Fox, head of the Alliance for Climate Protection, Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton Professor, Mark Ruffalo, Movie Star, Graham Hill, Treehugger Editor—turns out these are very knowledgeable and concerned people.

But even those very smart people had trouble getting their message across. The panels were extremely limited in time, and I fear we all ended up going shallow when we wanted to go deep. Why? Three sound-bytes per person, that was pretty much all that was possible, given that each hour had to also squeeze in the full Gore Slide Show from all the selected countries, and more.

It wasn’t for lack for trying. Even Gore himself worked the backstage crowd tirelessly, and provided much needed inspiration. The rumor is that he stayed up all night. I can’t verify that. All I know is I saw him right before I went on stage, at about midnight, and he congratulated me on the Film/TV Industry initiative I have been working on, to reduce the carbon emissions and environmental impacts of entertainment productions. www.greenproductionguide.com

He mentioned it again the next day—with real earnestness. Americans treat Al Gore so badly. They’re suspicious of his motives. Look at what he has to do to get his message out. Rick Perry doesn’t have to work nearly that hard to get HIS message out, and his message is not so cogent. Given that we felt that much was at stake, my co-panelists and I were motivated to not fumble our big opportunity.

Just before we went onto the set, there was a lot of stress backstage. The Lt Governor of Hawaii had made a last-minute decision to include in his presentation a “puapua”, a Hawaiian prayer song, which took more time than anyone had anticipated. It was beautiful, and so worth it, but that meant our panel would run short.

At the last minute, the producer stopped by to remind us that we were NOT to say anything at all political, remembering that the one bite that the FOX people would grab and post on their Web site would be the moment that one of us slipped into something political that we could not fully support. I had a little riff I had prepared about the carbon tax, and he gave me the big “Ix-nay” on that. No matter—Fox slammed us anyway, as we knew they would.

While we waited for the Climate Slide Show from Honolulu to be finished, with five minutes to go, various well-wishers wandered by the stand where we were getting our microphones attached. Cindy Horn, the founder of the Environmental Media Awards, offered support. She had been on a previous panel, did a great job, and reminded me that it was all going to be great, this was our moment—but by that point, I was really sweating, watching the Web ticker that reported millions of people were watching.

I needn’t have worried. At any given time, the Web audience was hardly epic, despite the large number of visitors who checked in at least once during the show. Turned out we would have been pretty safe to speak freely, in our little cocoon of panelists and climate advocates. Noah Diffenbach, a scientist from Stanford, led off with some strong data on climate change. I finished off with an answer to an audience question about how the mass media needs to do a better job communicating about climate change.

I was worried I might have mangled that bit about climate communications, a subject so important to me, as at that moment, the stage manager was already counting us down to the end of the hour—2 minutes, 1 minute, 30 seconds to go. I wanted to make sure people knew that many of us in the media WERE trying to do a better job. But it wasn’t just about us—we needed everyone in the media audience to jump in, too, show their interest, so our bosses, our editors and executive producers, could see that climate change is a subject people care about.

If the media is making you mad, I suggested, then just go outside! Breathe, and think of a stand you can take for nature. Detach from your digital domain for a nanosecond, turn off the TV and the laptop, step out for a minute and feel the breeze on your face. Remember why we’re all even having this argument—because when the birds and the clean air and the water and the trees are gone, you will really miss them. Stand up for nature!

Turns out I was talking in a vacuum. Let’s be honest—the media is doing a terrible job. Getting a mention of climate change into a news cast on television is like pulling teeth—your bosses hate you, or laugh at you, and then don’t return your emails for weeks afterwards. You feel ostracized, you learn to shut up.

As far as I can tell, this enormous undertaking—24 hours of broadcast-quality television production for the Web, featuring luminaries from science and other realms—has had zero effect. It’s hard not to get a little depressed—is it possible we’re just going to let this thing slide, until all the birds and wildlife and habitats are too degraded to recover? Human communities are at risk, too, people!

The last time I saw Gore, it was almost 7 PM, time for his big speech finale. I was barely conscious, but he seemed fine, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. He told me that more than 8 million people had watched. Yet when I read the coverage of the event the following day, I was disappointed to see it was still being portrayed as an us-versus-them battle.

The first half of the NYTIMES.COM review covered the work of hundreds, if not thousands, of scientists; the second half of their review covered the perspective of a few paid political consultants. Really?

I like how Andy Revkin puts it—it’s not us-vs.- them, it’s us-vs.-us. Please, let’s get past this. Our relatively small industry—film and TV production—is doing what it can, with the help of states like Hawaii, where we sometimes get to work. Other industries can do this, too.

Gore encourages me now to talk about this wherever I go. Tell a friend, he says. And when I give his Climate Slide Show to schools, I know I’m telling someone even more important—a child. I know they will save us—the younger generation is so hip to these things—but I’m not sure we can wait until they grow up to get started. That was the central message of Gore’s big finale speech:

Andy Revkin’s been at this game for thirty years, and so have I. We met covering another environmental story in the 1980s, rainforest destruction in Brazil, another lost story which was overlooked until it was too late. Now, we know we’re covering the story of our lives. Don’t make us wait. Let’s move past the obfuscators. Let’s do this thing.