Respected Penn State geologist Richard Alley becomes a PBS documentary host in the first of a three-part series airing in April with funding from the National Science Foundation. But can the “Operator’s Manual” companion book really “convince even the most obstinate climate-change denier” as one reviewer anticipates?

Richard Alley
Richard Alley: ‘Physics is physics … the evidence is clear.’

A respected geologist, Richard Alley of Penn State, soon debuts as the host of a three-part PBS documentary broadcast on climate change and energy.

With scientist Alley filling a role most often assigned to a journalist, the opening one-hour broadcast offers an intriguing example of how science and journalism might work collaboratively in better informing the public on the often complex and frequently controversial climate change issue.

The National Science Foundation-funded series, “Earth: The Operators’ Manual,” is to begin airing on local PBS stations April 10. Written and directed by Geoff Haines-Stiles, producer of the late Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” series, the first segment “dispenses with politics, polemics or punditry,” according to a press statement, promising to “leave viewers informed, energized, and optimistic.”

Filming from Brazil to China, from Denver to Spain and New Zealand, the first segment capitalizes on Alley’s well recognized science communications skills and his folksy personality (he’s endearingly considered by some to be a cross between a pleasant geek and a lovable nerd) to present an approachable and casual scientist fully committed that “the evidence is clear, the Earth’s climate is warming.”

Urging that advanced societies take a joint energy and climate approach to the climate challenges they face, Alley at one point says that “physics is physics” in explaining how an Air Force study exploring issues related to war ended up focusing also on warming. An on-air interview with Navy Rear Admiral David Titley, director of the “Task Force Climate Challenge,” is one of many references to the Department of Defense’s concerns over a warming world, as the first broadcast deals extensively with defense and national security-related aspects of climate change. Viewers, for instance, will become familiar with a new acronym in the climate change context — “QDR,” meaning the “Quadrennial Defense Review,” for the first time highlighting the importance of ongoing climate change from a national security perspective.

Cutting Military’s ‘Carbon Bootprint’

“In the U.S., every branch of the military is mobilizing to cut its carbon bootprint,” Alley says at one point, after having early established himself for the audience as “a registered Republican” who regularly plays soccer on Saturdays and goes to church on Sundays. He emphasizes also his being “a proud member of the United Nations panel on climate change. And I know the risks.”

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Reducing the military’s ‘carbon bootprint’

Using straightforward metaphors likely to be easily accessible to a broad non-scientist audience, Alley during the broadcast, visiting New Zealand’s West Coast Franz-Josef Glacier, says “A glacier is a great earth moving machine. It’s a dump truck that carries rocks that fall on top of it. It’s a bulldozer that pushes rocks in front of it. And it outlines itself with those rocks, making a deposit that we call a moraine that tells us where the glaciers have been.”

At one point in the broadcast, the camera, filming throughout in high definition, follows Alley into a deep New Zealand crevasse to help explain how the advance and retreat of massive glaciers during Earth’s Ice Ages relate to changing levels of carbon dioxide.

Explaining the Natural vs. Human-Caused Issue

Alley during the initial documentary leaves no doubt that he finds the scientific evidence convincing that the current observed warming is caused not by natural causes but rather by human actions.

“We need the warming and cooling effects of rising and falling CO2 to explain the effects we know are happening.” His discussion of carbon 12, 13, and 14 and the different sources for each, offers a clear explanation of how scientists know human activities and combustion of fossil fuels, and not natural causes, are behind the warming.

Outlining an energy approach built around “existing and new nuclear” and renewable energy sources, and pointing to example-after-example of innovative approaches, Alley ends up on the kind of upbeat note that clearly was a major goal of the production in the first place: “We can do this,” Alley says. “We can avoid climate catastrophes, improve energy security, and make millions of good jobs.”

A second installment in the series, which Haines-Stiles said he hopes will air later this calendar year, is also to feature Alley and tentatively has a working title of “10 Ways to Power the Planet.” The third program in the series, which Haines-Stiles said could be broadcast in April 2012, will feature case studies in energy throughout the U.S.

A separately financed companion Alley book, also by the name “Earth: The Operator’s Manual,” is being published by W.W. Norton & Company. Publishers Weekly speculated that it “should demolish any and all misinformation about global warming …. This optimistic book ought to convince even the most obstinate climate-change denier,” it said. A tall order indeed.

In addition, a 17-minute Alley radio interview with San Diego station KPBS is available here. The KPBS site also provides a transcript of the Alley interview for reading or printing out.

A work-in-progress website, earththeoperatorsmanual.com, is to provide the full documentary, which is to be available for teachers to download and use in classes, and a DVD for sale. The site provides a listing of local public broadcast stations and air-times for the program, but those are changing regularly, and updates from the stations can be slow. “Check your local listings” is good advice in this case.

Topics: Climate Science, Policy & Politics