When a large asteroid hit the earth, sixty-five million years ago, it kicked up a huge amount of dust. The dust dimmed the sun for so long that the surface of the earth cooled sufficiently to wipe out the dinosaurs (incidentally giving mammals a chance to develop into the rich variety we see today).
If such a threat were in our near future, CNN and all the other news channels would be screaming about it. There would be non-stop coverage, on what we could do to avert the disaster, and how to cope should it strike anyway, and how each of us would be affected. You couldn't get away from this news.
A similar threat is actually upon us, but going the other way: the earth is steadily warming. If we keep burning fossil fuels at today's rate, the average global temperature may rise by 4 degrees C by 2100. That doesn't sound like much, but the last time the world was 4C cooler on average, we were in an ice age, and life looked very different from the way it is today.
Global Warming from 1880 to 2013.
And it will keep warming past the year 2100. We don't know what life will look like when it's more than 4C warmer: it hasn't been that warm for millions of years.
This is an astonishing thought: the planet, our home, would be altogether a different place from what it is today. And while the changes appear slow on a human time scale, the warming is occurring at an unprecedented rate. Already species are feeling the pressure, and it is not clear how many will survive the changes that are very rapid on an evolutionary time scale. It's clear: we must do what we can to keep the warming below 2C.
You would think that would make the news.
But the other astonishing thing about this is that there has been a near-silence on climate change in the mainstream news media. What little there is, is often diluted because editors give equal time to climate change deniers.
Here's an example: In January 2015, a group of celebrities got together and wrote an Open Letter to World Leaders, urging them to fight climate change to ensure the wellbeing of all today, and of future generations.
It was not covered by mainstream media.
It's stunning. Go over the list of signatories to this open letter and try to tell me that not one of those names made you look up. If given any media attention, this letter could be a rallying cry across the planet.
I am not going to speculate on what does or does not move a copy editor or show producer to feature a climate change story. I do say that the fourth estate is failing its duty to informus. Besides, it's passing up on the biggest story of our time.
So here is what you and I can do about that.
We can help pass around the story ourselves. I've been giving climate talks, and have found that even the greenest cohorts still needs to hear the message more often, and more clearly: that global warming is happening, that it's happening now, that we humans are causing it, and that there is a window of time in which we can work to stave off the worst of the effects.
For those who are not into powerpoint talks, you can arrange to show movies on climate change. This is what I did recently. I started by going to my public library; I found the librarian who manages the library events, and pitched her my idea of showing selected parts of the documentary "Years of Living Dangerously".
The librarian put the event on the calendar. And she researched what it would take to show the movie in public. It wasn't on the list of the library's vendor of movie rights, but "Years" can be shown publicly for free if the organisers register the event at 350.org as a "watch party". We promoted the event through the library's channels and through local networks of climate activists and environmentalists.
I invited two climate scientists and a climate journalist to form a panel for a discussion after the movie, and to answer questions. I had met the journalist online (because that's how we live our lives now), and when I asked him to be on the panel, he agreed immediately. (The librarian also sent him a formal invitation, since it was a library event).
I had no qualms asking the scientists, since they are listed on Climate Voices. This website shows climate scientists who have volunteered to be available for public outreach; an interactive map makes it easy to find them. Finding nearby scientists was nice because my library has zero travel budget for its guests, and also because this way we caused hardly any carbon emissions for travel. Of course, you can also ask any of the Climate Voices scientists to give a standalone presentation on climate change.
"Years of Living Dangerously" is a great documentary because it's made like a Hollywood movie: It speaks to the heart, where you want the message to sink in. Its "reporters" are famous people.
It also comes in nine hour-long episodes. There is no way you can show all that in one sitting.
So I chose the pieces that were relevant to my state, because those are the ones that speak most to the audience. The total run time was about 75 minutes. I made sure to introduce the movie with a reminder that, as intense and depressing the documentary may be, there are people working on solutions right now, and I listed a few examples, including the efforts going on in our town.
After the screening, I asked each of the panelists to summarise what they saw would be the major climate change impacts in our area. Actually, one of the panelists had come down with a bad cold so had to cancel his appearance, but the remaining two were magnificent, spelling out the relevant science clearly and without dumbing down.
Then they patiently fielded questions from the audience with the same clarity and at high scientific level. I would love to lavish praise on them by name; unfortunately I can't (it's in the nature of writing an anonymous blog). But it's easy to see why the panelists made themselves available for public outreach: they are excellent communicators.
Afterwards, we mingled and connected, and kept at it until the library closed for the night. At the door the librarian had put a stack of flyers with a list of further viewing and reading; many movies and books on that list were at the library, so we could come back, when the library was open again, and check out the items.
There were 35-40 people in the audience. For a bitterly cold Friday night I thought that was a very good crowd, and I was happy.
Arranging a viewing like this takes some planning, but it's really worth reaching all those people. However, if you want to watch the documentary with a smaller circle of friends, you could do it in someone's living room, and you don't need to register it since it woudln't be a public viewing. You can stream "Years of Living Dangerously" if you have the Showtime channel (use Showtime Anytime); it's also available on Netflix. If you do it often you can buy the 5-DVD set.
I really believe this: it's best if you don't watch this by yourself. I've seen parts of this documentary three times now, and it still hits as hard as the first time. It's very, very well made. And rumour has it there will be a second season.
I hope this inspires you to organise a viewing. You can do this. You can help get the word out on climate change - and you don't have to be a climate scientist to do so.