Documentary Screening and Panel Help Climate Change Issues Hit Home

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Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“The fact that I bought recycled napkins, cups, and plates for this event has not mitigated climate catastrophe,” said Melissa Tier ‘14 at last Thursday’s screening of “Years of Living Dangerously.” Tier gave an introductory speech before playing the first episode of the climate change documentary series. “But it has done something, and I think what it’s done is made me more aware of how difficult it is to reduce use of plastic when planning an event.”

Tier went on to describe events that disrupt our routine, like small eco-friendly changes, as valuable and necessary. “Disruption, I think, is key […]. It gives us a very small taste of the massive life disruptions that are currently facing millions around the world,” Tier said.

“Years of Living Dangerously” is one of the first television shows to specifically tackle global warming as a broader political issue. Rather than aiming for those who were already passionate about climate change, the series seeks to persuade disinterested individuals to consider the real-world consequences of global warming. The show is a combined effort between scientists specializing in climate studies and individuals within the entertainment industry.

The episode shown on Thursday featured Harrison Ford, Don Cheadle, and Thomas Friedman. Each of these individuals investigated specific ways in which communities had been impacted by climate change. The episode explored the effect of palm oil production on the environment, the impact of droughts on the conflict in Syria, and the effect of pervasive droughts that caused the closing of a meat-packing plant, leaving a small town in Texas impoverished.

The episode also followed the efforts of an evangelical climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe to educate people within the faith community about the reality of anthropogenic (people-caused) climate change. The series seeks to explore the ways in which climate change is currently a polarizing political issue, and how to best communicate its severity to the general population.

Tier, who was crucial in the organization of the event, believed that this would be a valuable way of encouraging the Swarthmore community to become more involved in climate change efforts. “Probably the Swarthmore population of students, faculty, and staff is more informed than the general public [about climate change], just by being at a top academic institution […]. But, I don’t know if there is a feeling of urgency,” Tier said.

After the screening, there was an hour-long panel. The panelists consisted of Mark Wallace, professor of religion at Swarthmore, Alex Ahn ‘14, a biology major at Swarthmore who previously interned for the show, Kim Lengel, the director of conservation at the Philadelphia Zoo, and Joy Bergey, the federal policy director at PennFuture, an environmental organization.

“One of the questions we were asked was ‘who is going to watch an entire show about climate change?’” Ahn said. “We knew that any show about this issue had to be about people. That gave us the mission of meshing investigative journalism with real stories we could relate to.” Ahn specified that the goal was not to necessarily convert hard-core skeptics of climate change, but rather to inspire people who were mostly indifferent.

Mark Wallace emphasized the importance of meaningfully connecting individuals to the effects of climate change. Quoting Stephen Jay Gould, late biologist and Harvard professor, Wallace stated, “We will not save what we do not love,” arguing for the necessity of communicating about climate change differently.

“The task of moving ahead on climate change is to coordinate the inner landscape of the heart with the outer landscape of the natural world. […] Unless we can make that connection, we will continue to see climate change as a special issue on the political spectrum,” Wallace said. He also praised the efforts Heyhoe put into connecting people emotionally to this issue. This type of emotional persuasion, he said, has been used effectively by religious leaders to mobilize people to participate in historical political movements like abolition and the civil rights movement.

“A lot of the guests we have are probably among the large population who has not made up their mind about this,” said Lengel, who believed the Zoo could provide a unique educational opportunity to a diversity of people. “We are specifically trying to connect our guests, through coming in contact with our animals, to the animals who are being displaced through deforestation, and cause them to think about how climate change is impacting animals throughout the world.”

Joy Bergey expressed great satisfaction with the episode but wanted to specify that not all religious individuals are skeptical of climate change. “I want to make sure that people understand that there are a lot of people in the faith community working [against] climate change,” said Bergey, an active member in the Christian community.

Bergey emphasized the different goals of religion and science and does not view them as at all incompatible. “Science wants to know, ‘Why does this cup hold together?’ Religion wants to know, ‘Why are we here? What is the nature of evil?’ Science can’t address those questions,” Bergey said.

Tier hopes to screen more episodes of the series on campus in the future. “I’m hoping that as we continue these, the conversation will continue to address what actions we can take,” she explained.

In terms of the ability for Swarthmore students to combat climate change, Tier remarked, “I think there are smaller things people can do on a day-to-day basis that at least keep the issue in our heads. Once the general population is thinking about it more, it will be easier to brainstorm larger solutions.”

Featured image courtesy of http://thinkprogress.org/

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