We are the new polar bear 

Scientist M. Sanjayan talks about his upcoming television series "Years of Living Dangerously"

Science has been getting a cool makeover lately on television shows like Neil DeGrasse Tyson's "Cosmos" and "I Fucking Love Science," a website that will soon be a TV series. It's this atmosphere of science-friendly pop culture that makes "Years of Living Dangerously," a climate change documentary series focused on personal stories, ripe for public consumption. The show airs this weekend on Showtime and brings a hefty dose of star power. There are appearances by celebrities Harrison Ford, Jessica Alba and Matt Damon all of whom are involved in environmental charities—and it's produced by James "Titanic" Cameron along with former producers of "60 Minutes."

Also featured in one of the episodes is Missoula-based M. Sanjayan, a conservation scientist, documentary filmmaker and Emmy-nominated news contributor. (He also serves as a science consultant for the series.) As part of this year's International Wildlife Film Festival, Sanjayan will give audiences a sneak peek into the series. He spoke with the Indy about his role in the project, how David Letterman gave him a wake-up call and why the new reports on climate change aren't all bad.

One of the pitfalls of climate change documentaries is the fatigue audiences feel about such a heavy topic. What kind of tone does "Years of Living Dangerously" take?

M. Sanjayan: The show really talks about climate change as it is today for real people, not as some distant future event. It's almost like the "60 Minutes" of climate change. Other climate change series kind of come at you from what's going to happen in the future or lays out the science as a chain of logic. "Years of Living Dangerously" is much more immersive, so even if you're not interested in climate change you're going to get caught up in the characters that we are bringing to life.

How did these celebrities get chosen for the series?

MS: James Cameron really has this passion for wanting to do something about the changing planet. He and the executive producers approached celebrities who they knew either had some real credibility with environmental issues or wanted to learn more about it. Matt Damon has his own charity that focuses on water. Harrison Ford is the vice president for the organization I work for, Conservation International, and he's been doing that for years.

Tell me about the episode you're in.

MS: My role in this film is to follow a couple of scientists into the field and tell their stories. I think the clip I might show at the festival is when I go to Christmas Island with scientist Kim Cobb, who is a late-30s mother of three—a very dynamic woman, very smart. If you close your eyes and picture a scientist, that ain't Kim. And yet she's literally one of the best climate scientists out there with multiple published papers in science. She goes with a team of her post-docs—an all-female crew, by the way, just by chance—and they go diving underwater with a 100-pound drill and they drill cores out of coral. The conditions under which she works and how she pushes to get the data, it's pretty impressive. I'm hoping that when people see that they'll understand that scientists are quite literally putting themselves on the line in order to bring us this data.

click to enlarge M. Sanjayan, science correspondent for “Years of Living Dangerously,” collects evidence of climate change on Christmas Island along with climatologist Kim Cobb and Georgia Tech graduate student Pamela Groethe.
  • M. Sanjayan, science correspondent for “Years of Living Dangerously,” collects evidence of climate change on Christmas Island along with climatologist Kim Cobb and Georgia Tech graduate student Pamela Groethe.

As a scientist, how do you help non-scientists understand the urgency?

MS: At Christmas Island I was struck by how good the science really is now. We are now moving beyond just talking about temperature change, we're talking about how wind patterns shift or how ocean temperatures rise very, very specifically. So, the reason people aren't making decisions [that address climate change] isn't because the science isn't good—that may be a delaying tactic. People make decisions all the time that are not in their best interest like smoking or deciding to exercise tomorrow rather than today. I think part of it is we have not used peers to talk to peers, ranchers to talk to ranchers, evangelical Christians to talk to other evangelical Christians. We've stood from afar and preached from above and it doesn't really work to do that.

What do you think of the recent and dire report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that basically says no one will come out unscathed?

MS: If you look at the first IPCC report you would almost want to put the polar bear on the front of it ... The good thing about this recent IPCC report is that it squarely puts the focus on humans. When you read this report you're like, 'Oh I get it. We are the polar bear." And by doing that I actually think it helps us reframe the debate. Imagine if the first thing we said when we first discovered germs could kill you was that we need to have a massive government program in order to get rid of germs. You'd never see sewer systems in cities—people would laugh at you because of the cost of it. Instead, we said we need to wash our hands, we need to use antiseptic methods. That's adaptation. When you talk about adaptation you're talking about changing your life in order to deal with a threat. By changing the argument to be about us and what's happening right now, we get people far more in tune to thinking about larger mitigation [efforts]. So I'm not depressed about the IPCC report.

How did you become interested in climate change?

MS: I've always felt like a bit of a fraud talking about climate change. Some years ago, Steve Running [University of Montana climatologist] and I were lucky enough to meet David Letterman out in Eastern Montana where he has a home. After that meeting, Letterman invited me on his show. He preceded to really pummel me with questions about climate change—not in a mean way, he was charming as can be. But it was clear that this was an issue that deeply mattered to him and that I, as a lead scientist for a big environmental organization, The Nature Conservancy, should have answers. I was repeating things I'd learned in books and papers. I was intellectualizing it and ducking and weaving so that I wouldn't get caught basically with my pants down not really having an answer on late-night TV.

It was kind of funny and it worked for television; I don't come off looking bad, but it scared me inside. I realized that if I was to get out there and tell the story about climate change I had to do it with a lot more conviction. I had to feel it in my bones. When the opportunity came to get involved with this project my initial reaction was "No." But when they told me, "You will get to go in the field, you will get to understand the science, you will feel it in your bones," I thought it was an opportunity I couldn't say no to.

M. Sanjayan talks about his work and screens an episode from "Years Of Living Dangerously" at the UC Theatre Wed., April 16, at 6 PM. The series airs Sun., April 13. Visit yearsoflivingdangerously.com.

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