02/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

NOVA's "The Big Energy Gamble": The Challenge of Climate Narratives

Imagine, if you will, a story. In this story most of the characters are mute. The threats are abstract, the timeline long, the stakes high and the consequences still uncertain. Politics are present, and so, too, are heaps of money. There are enemies, but no battlefield. There is no climax. And there certainly is no discernible denouement.

A sleeper, right? You'd receive no objections here. But this is the problem of narrating climate change: it lacks the natural elements that make for a gripping story. Our earth's climate is a reality unfit for reality TV. Think about it: if a narrative of climate were to be scientifically accurate, it would be an uncertain drama spanning thousands of years. And that's only one episode.

You may think I'm joking, but I'm not. I'm merely exaggerating, and then only to make the simple point that it is difficult to be both accurate and compelling in climate reporting. Andy Revkin, over at Dot Earth, has talked about this. So too has Max Boykoff, a professor of mine here at Oxford's Environmental Change Institute. Joe Romm also blogs persuasively about the main stream media's limitations.

These challenges often drive journalists to make a similar choice in their coverage of climate change: they exaggerate to make a point. Take the Nature article that bred headlines that a million species were committed to extinction. Or the more recent story arguing that climate change has caused a rise in shark attacks. Both newspaper articles were wrong, but both contain a kernel of the truth.

"The Big Energy Gamble", a show that premiered last Tuesday night on NOVA, contains more than a kernel of climate truth. But it also contains more than one mistake common to climate reporting, as well. That makes it is an important documentary about an important topic, but not, I suspect, for the reasons the creators had planned.

The documentary takes as its subject California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, known as AB-32. The Bill sets GHG reduction targets of 1990 levels by 2020, and then a further 80% below 1990 by 2050.

The proposed legislation is important, not simply because of what it would mean for California, but for the nation. President Obama's new website indicates he favors a similar policy. Moreover, if scientists are right, the world needs to move towards a low carbon economy. California, as the eighth largest economy in the world, has, by virtue of its progressive climate, made of its gross domestic product a trillion dollar guinea pig.

The documentary gets this right; it looks at California not in isolation, but as the stage for what is going to be a national, if not an international, transformation. And make no mistake; this will not be a transition, but a transformation. One that, according to a nearly unanimous scientific consensus, surely must happen.

And that's where the trouble begins. The title suggests what the science does not -- that there's some uncertainty to the necessity of a low carbon economy. The title captures the sense of risk, but displaces it from inaction (where it should be) to action (where we should be). It recalls to mind The Global Casino, an introduction to climate science by Nick Middleton. If the earth is warming, and we're responsible, a move towards a low carbon economy isn't a reckless roll of the dice. It's what this country, and this world, sorely needs.

You get the sense that the producers of "The Big Energy Gamble" would agree. But they're storytellers -- and good ones at that. NOVA is a highly reputable science program. In fact, I'd argue that it's one of the best on television, and not simply for its ratings. (Disclosure: my dad worked as a producer at WGBH a few decades ago.) Why, then, does NOVA not get this right?

For the same reason the show repeatedly turns to stale clips from Schwarzenegger's action films: because they're storytellers, and, in the tradition of well-trained journalists, are trying to tell an exciting story. You can't fault them for this; I certainly don't. But telling a good climate story doesn't always mean telling the accurate climate story. Nowhere is this more clear in the show than in the presence of the climate skeptics.

Take Chuck DeVore, the Republican State Assemblyman running for Barbara Boxer's California Senate seat in 2010. He's featured early in the show to offer the opinion that "greenhouse gas emissions are, in this point in time, a fairly theoretical problem." I'd suggest that someone put a copy of the climate reports by the Nobel Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but cluelessness seems to be one of Assemblyman Devore's charms. He makes awkward campaign videos. Here the Assemblymen is both smug and factually incorrect. And here he supports offshore drilling.

This raises the question: Why include either this character? Or the other global warming denialist from the Competitive Enterprise Institute? Boykoff again has the point. In his work, he's argued that the journalistic norm of providing fair and balanced reporting can, in the case of climate change, create the false illusion of a debate where really there is none.

Yes, there is a valid debate over the substance of AB-32. But the only debate over the science of climate change is a question of how much the earth will warm, not whether we're warming it. This is all too bad, if only because this show hits a stride most of the way through. The increasingly recurrent presence of Dr. Stephen Chu, President Obama's new Energy Secretary, as well as Van Jones, raise the level of dialog as they raise increasingly strong questions.

It's with them that we get the sense that we're on the verge of an entirely new kind of economic productivity. At the very least, we're entering a new period where science is elevated, not punished, by government. With this elevation, and the challenge of low carbon economy, come a series of provocative questions: Can a green economy be a prosperous economy? Can it be a stimulus? Can the goals of AB-32 be reached in time? What are the myths? What the hidden opportunities? What the possibilities for us as a nation?

The show ends with another, more simple question: Do we have a choice? Gov. Schwarzenegger, aided by a swaggering finger, says we don't. The Economist's Vijay Vaitheeswaran says that we must choose to balance prosperity while tackling climate change. The questions here at the end are pointed, the responses sharp. I only wish NOVA had gotten there sooner. Trouble was, by the time it heated up, they were out of time.


To watch the program online, click here.

This post was originally published on On Earth's Greenlight blog.