In one of the most high-profile, big-budget, and ambitious climate change communications and mass media efforts to date, Showtime will broadcast a new eight-part documentary series, “Years of Living Dangerously,” beginning April 13. The series features some of the world’s biggest names in entertainment as field correspondents.

Harrison Ford travels through remote forests and flies on NASA airplanes taking air samples — and angrily confronts top Indonesian government officials in ways conventional journalists might find improper. Don Cheadle is in drought-ridden Texas. Matt Damon explores the impact of heat waves. There’s plenty of appeal for younger viewers and the People magazine/TMZ crowd: Jessica Alba, America Ferrera, Ian Somerhalder, Olivia Munn. Mixed in too are some journalists: Columnist Thomas Friedman reports on a war-ravaged Syria stressed by climatic changes; food and cooking writer Mark Bittman is in New Jersey, exploring the implications of Hurricane Sandy; and Chris Hayes of MSNBC is on Staten Island, while CBS News’ Lesley Stahl is in the Arctic.

The stories are woven together in a narrative tapestry, each episode following some of the multiple issues pursued by the 16 principal storytellers involved. The $20 million production was shot at locations around the United States and the world, giving its content appeal for local and regional audiences domestically and abroad. Showtime data shows the deluxe cable station reaches 23 million cable subscribers, or about one-fifth of U.S. households with television sets. About 90 days after the show airs, DVD sales and electronic sell-through viewings, along with on-demand options, are to begin. The program’s creators say they hope to produce a second season.

As part of a larger “The Years Project,” the new documentary is to be supported also by a broader online engagement and awareness campaign.

Judging from the first two episodes made available to media, the series is produced with the kind of attractive, high-end production values — stirring music, fast pacing, and superior editing and filming — you’d expect from its all-star cast of producers and backers, which include James Cameron, Jerry Weintraub and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and “60 Minutes” veterans.

Peer-reviewing the Script

Fact-checked and advised on the science by Climate Central’s Heidi Cullen (also see a Yale Forum Q&A with her) and prolific climate writer and analyst Joe Romm of Climate Progress/Center for American Progress, the series explores serious data and research as correspondents speak with scientists, activists, politicians, and average citizens presented as seeing changes all around them.

Cullen says the celebrities are meant to serve as “proxies” for the average viewer, posing questions and exploring uncertainties. They add “a fresh perspective,” she said, adding that “all the editors and producers cared so much about getting the science right.”

Two recent historical precedents to “Years” may come to mind as climate change documentary sensations. The 2011 PBS three-part series “Earth: The Operators’ Manual” featured Penn State climatologist Richard Alley, a highly regarded scientist and charismatic science communicator.

And there is of course former Vice President Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” shown in movie theaters worldwide, and generally seen as being highly effective in introducing the climate issue to the broad public and in audience persuasion.

‘Years’: Showing ‘Heartbreak’ along with a Fair Dose of Optimism

Perhaps distinguishing itself from those two documentaries, “Years” is less a purely professorial work that focuses on  “consensus science” findings and datapoints — though there seems plenty of that too in the series. The new documentary strives also to be more of a production building toward a sort of global “consensus experience” of climatic change, and it includes ample upbeat or “optimistic” messages along with the grim news of a rapidly warming atmosphere. “Years”  follows human subjects over substantial periods of time, developing deeper character sketches, showing “heartbreak,” and putting a “human face” on the issue, as its creators say.

“We include science coverage,” says Daniel Abbasi, an executive producer, climate advocate, author, and green investor who helped organize the project, “but less by charts and graphs and statistics and more by scientists showing us what they do in the field and why they’re reaching the conclusion that this problem is such a serious risk to the viability of our civilization and requires urgent action.”

Abbasi said in an interview that the series “unabashedly covers some of the emotional content around climate change and, in this sense, does something I think [much] of the cerebral coverage of climate change is missing.”

“All in all,” he continues, “‘Years’ challenges our fellow citizens to come with their full cognitive and emotional minds engaged so we can process the climate change issue and take much needed action.”

Whether the series will be subject to the scene-by-scene science debates and media critiques that Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” ultimately was remains to be seen, but barbs from those steadfastly rejecting the scientific “consensus” are all but certain. By taking to the “field” to assess climate change, “Years” of course runs right into sticky attribution problems — establishing accurate connections between human-induced atmospheric changes and weather, drought, etc.

The project’s primary funding comes from a variety of philanthropists both in the United States and Europe. (Disclosure: The Yale Forum shares a common funder.)

Media Patterns and Celebrity Action

There is little new about using celebrities to promote causes, of course, although this series has actors getting their “hands dirty” more than most prior efforts. Actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio have attempted to bring attention to environmental issues and climate change — he narrated “The 11th Hour,” a 2007 film about the subject — and make it part of their public persona and “brand.” Daryl Hannah and Danny Glover have at times been prominent parts of the anti-Keystone XL pipeline movement, bringing more media attention.

News content analysis data suggest that mainstream media have increasingly reported on the advocacy of celebrities as part of their climate coverage, researchers say. A 2010 paper by Max Boykoff of the University of Colorado, Mike Goodman, then of King’s College London, and Jo Littler of Middlesex University provides some insight into this media trend of covering “charismatic megafauna,” as the scholars cheekily put it.

The Social Science of Celebrity

In advance press materials, the creators of “Years of Living Dangerously” point out that some of the celebrities featured have “authentic commitment” to climate change and related environmental causes:  Harrison Ford is a Conservation International Board Member; Matt Damon is co-founder of; Don Cheadle is a UN Environmental Program Global Ambassador.

Declan Fahy, associate professor at American University’s School of Communication, notes that celebrities have a powerful promotional value and can help reach wider audiences. But their power goes beyond that, he says:

Their cultural influence goes deeper than just promotion. They personify ideas and social issues. They put a recognizable, individual face on a complex, systemic phenomenon like climate change and therefore make the issue connect with audiences, engaging them on the issue, and potentially mobilizing them to take action. How this happens is a complicated process, but the power of celebrity is real.

Still, Fahy warns, much depends on the pre-existing image of the particular celebrity. “They bring their cultural baggage and histories into the show, leaving it open to the potential criticism that [it] is another example of liberal entertainment elites preaching to the country,” Fahy, who is to publish a book on scientific celebrities later this year, noted in an e-mail interview. “So someone like Harrison Ford looks like a good choice messenger, as his long track record with Conservation International means his involvement cannot be portrayed as an opportunistic way for him to get publicity.”

Likewise, Goodman, now of University of Reading (U.K.), wrote in an e-mail that “celebrities can divide audiences as much as they can bring them in.” His empirical work on celebrities involved in food and humanitarian issues in Britain suggests that “who the celebrity is really matters to how their message is taken and if it is taken seriously.” Further, he says:

The role of authenticity and credibility is really important here if this is about the person talking about the details and being a part of the show rather than just the voice over; indeed if they begin to pronounce on things they seem like they know nothing about or their credentials have not been established either beforehand or during the show, then they are often not taken seriously and their message and detail is lost or can be lost.

Boykoff and Goodman’s 2009 paper in the journal Geoforum, “Conspicuous Redemption? Reflections on the Promises and Perils of the ‘Celebritization’ of Climate Change,” categorizes the various classes of famous persons now doing climate change activism, including musicians, athletes, business people and politicians. While celebrities can bring mass attention, Boykoff and Goodman note, it is possible that they may also “reduce proposed critical behavioral changes to the domain of fashion and fad rather than influence substantive long-term shifts in popular discourse and action.” There is a danger that such climate celebrities focus the issue on the “heroic individual” — providing an “individual frame” for action — and not on more distributed collective movements of citizens striving toward social justice.

Schwarzenegger: ‘Baggage and Histories’ with Timber Holdings?

On Fahy’s “cultural baggage and histories” point, a number of media reports began circulating on March 25 concerning Schwarzenegger’s purported links to what Britain’s Guardian newspaper described as “some of the world’s  most destructive logging companies.”

The British newspaper’s Washington, D.C.-based environmental correspondent, Suzanne Goldenberg, reported March 25 that Schwarzenegger “is a part owner of an investment company, Dimensional Fund Advisers, with significant holdings in tropical forestry companies.” She reported that research done by Global Witness had indicated Schwarzenegger had an estimated 5 percent stake in the firm, which Goldenberg said manages $338 billion globally. She quoted a Global Witness spokesperson as characterizing Schwarzenegger’s involvement as “deeply hypocritical.”

The Huffington Post and Britain’s The Independent were among other papers carrying first-day news stories on the Global Witness investigation.

With More Celebrities Can Come More Social Media Action

Nevertheless, in the digital age celebrities certainly bring with them social media power — and that kind of power sometimes can jump across polarized networks. The project will benefit immensely if the celebrity participants lend their social power over time, research suggests.

In a working paper analyzing social media discourse patterns during the 2012 presidential election, Deen Freelon of American University and David Karpf of George Washington University coin the term “bridging elites” to describe celebrities and high-profile non-political persons whose messages reach beyond the more narrowly partisan audiences of other elites and pundits. It can help solve the “polarized crowds” problem that the Pew Research Center has identified as characteristic of discussions on Twitter, for example.

By putting celebrities directly in the field of climate change, “Years” stands as a bold experiment whose approach and impact will surely be studied for some time. If it can help de-polarize, bridge, and persuade, it may be seen as a novel and important breakthrough and may open new avenues for climate change communications.

John Wihbey

John Wihbey, a writer, educator, and researcher, is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a correspondent for Boston Globe Ideas. Previously, he was an assistant director...