"I read once that it takes 75,000 trees to produce one issue of the
Sunday New York Times – and it's well worth every trembling leaf.
So what if our grandchildren have no oxygen to breathe?
Bill Bryson (not being entirely serious)
From his book, The Lost Continent
How do you react, relaxing on a luxury liner cutting through the calmest ocean imaginable, being told that the ship will hit the worst storms in recorded history and sink with great loss of life. Scary? You bet. But what if, added to this dire warning, are the words "but not until we're in the second decade of your grandchild's life." How much effort do you make to ensure that the ship doesn't sink? How much effort do you make – right now? You may not even get to meet your grandchild. It's the essential question of our time whatever religious extremists would have us believe. What are you prepared to do now to avert future disaster when the odds are you'll not live long enough to experience it? The severe and potentially catastrophic effects of global warming are a smidgeon more important than the ideological battle between two invisible sky-gods. And Armageddon is not just a religious fantasy anymore but a very profound, practical reality. In trying to understand the science behind the warnings, filmmakers and ecologists have to show us metaphorical snowflakes to make us understand avalanches, leaves of trees to make us aware of giant rainforests. The intrinsic and hugely complex nature of the effect of global warming is wide ranging, potentially catastrophic and almost impossible to accurately predict.
This "no one really knows" aspect of the whole global warming issue gives rise to a trenchant apathy on the part of the individual. In my case, I admit this because I believe myself to behave very much like the majority of those who know the facts but are not exactly leading the eco-way with hybrids and hemp. It's not happening to me now and what's wrong with the UK being a bit warmer? A terrible and, to be sure, future wrecking philosophy. I buy long lasting light bulbs, do the compost thing and recycle all I can. I am aware of what seems to be happening but feel to be one seven billionth of the potential solution. As far as collective responsibility is concerned, I can do my bit but as Harlan Ellison once cannily observed "No one snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible." And the human race ("a virus with shoes...", thank you Bill Hicks) races on to own stuff, use stuff, destroy stuff. And apart from the oil crisis which will ignite civil wars all over the globe – until someone figures out a way for us to become less dependent on the black stuff – the planet itself may well turn on us in inconceivable ways. Let's face it. It already has. Ask the residents of New Orleans...
Three men stood at the forefront of making us aware of the problems our species (and all other species) will face. Each made their contribution within a two-year period. The most recent and sad to say the most jaw-droppingly dreary is the over produced and under-idea'ed talking heads festival that is The 11th Hour. I toast Leonardo DiCaprio's commitment to the planet but there has to be a better way of getting this information across to people other than having experts sit in a dark blue room and solemnly intone about the fate of our dear planet. There has to be. Of course, the most famous of the crop of three is Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. His movie presentation of his slideshow is a success partly due to Gore's personality (I feel he would have made a good president – which is why he wasn't allowed to be). His message is clear and unequivocal. Released in September 2006, Gore's movie was chronologically trumped by a two part BBC Discovery co-production featuring a familiar figure who'd kept politics well out of his many ground breaking natural history series for forty years. Eventually, someone with a graph of shocking information convinced him to say something on the subject.
It was the BBC natural history's Supreme Being, David Attenborough, who was first out of the gate with his two-part TV special collectively known as The Truth About Climate Change now assembled to be released on DVD. Screened in May 2006, it pre-empted An Inconvenient Truth and is an altogether different animal. In 2006 Attenborough was 80 years old. What he has over Gore is not so much his years but the mileage – what he accomplished in those years. Attenborough has been our guide to all life on this planet for as long as I've been alive. He is trusted like no other broadcaster to tell the truth. His many series on the natural world have prompted awe and respect. Surely if Attenborough has his eyes opened by evidence or some concrete speculation, surely we can all benefit by trusting him and making a change in our lifestyles? That is the measure of his two-part DVD special. Will it help? The answer is yes. Even if it means you buy long life light bulbs and do nothing else. Any shift away from emitting carbon dioxide in bucket loads is a good shift however infinitesimal. And it seems fitting that a man who spent his life going "Wow!" at the wonder of this planet is first in line to give credence to the global warming threat. So how successful is the message? Let's re-cap the shows individually.
Are We Changing Planet Earth? (58' 27")
Attenborough is well aware of his perceived power to communicate to the general public. So it's all credit to him that he's committed to public awareness of global warming. Once his voice arrives, you know that you can trust what you're about to hear and see. Polar Bears are more desperate now and are tracked and their health checked. Ice floes are melting as the carbon dioxide is released from our activities. The graphic effects used to show this are very effective (dark sooty CG blobs that rise into the blue sky).
The drought in the Amazon in 2005 is illustrated with startling footage that makes you go "What?" You get the same reaction at the bleaching of the coral reefs (due to a lack of algae because of the carbon dioxide being absorbed into the oceans). Like Gore, Attenborough's 'proof' comes from weather and climate prediction computers producing some scary graphs of rising temperatures. Attenborough admits that it was this evidence that convinced him. Scary. So what can we do?
Can We Save Planet Earth? (59' 08")
We still have time to make a difference... just not that much. Attenborough intones gravely that the events that will happen will be between severe and catastrophic. There's some repetition in the second show necessary as they were probably screened a week apart. The footage of the Boscastle Floods in Cornwall, hurricane Katrina and the fires in Australia are all present and scary enough. The UK's Met Office's Hadleigh Centre houses a supercomputer which can do some impressive prediction calculations. Attenborough and Professor Peter Cox strike up an amiable relationship on screen even when they are looking at a literal projection of the global temperatures we can all guarantee are on the way.
Attenborough serves up an average (American) family (the Carbons) as an example of needless waste and what we can do to bring that waste down. When we cut to China and the Tam family I fully expected some futuristic planet saving behaviour but what we get in China is scarier. China is about to become America in terms of fuel usage and wastage. The statistic that stuck was that one fossil fuel power plant per week will be built for the next seven years. Another bicycle happy academic has broken down the problem into seven slices, seven reductions that must be made to keep the line of warming constant not northbound. But the key part of this programme is watching Attenborough being advised how to cut down his personal emissions so to speak. Notebooks at the ready because this is the key scene – how we can help.
The two episodes that comprise The Truth About Climate Change are both American co-productions with the BBC so the shows have a US slant to them. This is not necessarily a bad thing as the average US citizen is probably the most important consumer to reach in terms of reducing carbon footprints. The folks at the much appreciated Open University have had their tuppence worth (their logo is all over the packaging) and after their recent and superb BBC 4 series, Inside The Medieval Mind, I will cut them more slack than they can comfortably use. Declining standards in TV Production over the last decade have filtered up to Attenborough. These shows were always going to be library driven (not necessarily a bad thing if done with some craft) but belie their lack of budget with the most diverse series of music cues I've ever heard in a documentary. If there's a budget, you hire a composer to give unity to your argument. If there is no money, like a great deal of TV I've worked in recently, you use library music so a cue serves a scene not the whole. Each cue in its odd way almost works well in these two show's cases but it doesn't help that I am familiar with a lot of this music as it comes from one of the best libraries in the business, Audio Network.
But on the whole, I have to recommend this DVD for the obvious reasons but instead of Al Gore (despite his fame, not the household name over here as he is over there), we have Attenborough and his weight is welcome and enough to kick start your brain into seeing the bigger picture.
Presented in anamorphic 16x9, the specially shot material (Attenborough in 2006 at the age of 80 and still pretty chipper) is fine. The archive is of varying quality and the DV and worse snatched material of (un)natural disasters is downright "Mr. Smith's holiday domestic video format" quality. There are a lot of clips from Attenborough's previous series and despite the quality inherent in the film originals, the clips seem to have been taken from tape masters and truth be told, they look, unlike Attenborough himself, old and tired. I expect the BBC will eventually re-master these classic shows from their 16mm originals to HD but for now, for this programme, the clips belie their true quality. Frankly they're filthy; dust and hairs abound and I'd hate to think that the editors had added those faults to make sure we all know this is 'from a long time ago'?).
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is solid and un-showy and, surprisingly, there are no subtitles and no descriptions for the hard of hearing. For a 'message' documentary, that's quite an omission. I thought we were supposed to be reducing omissions (sorry).
As this DVD features two documentaries about possibly the most important subject in debate across the globe, it's hard to be too disappointed that the cupboard is bare when it comes to special features.
A solid and trustworthy entrant in the "How many times do we have to tell you?" genre of global warming warnings, Attenborough's The Truth About Climate Change is solid, involving, occasionally thought provoking and always frankly terrifying but a fear experienced in acknowledgement of a jeopardised future, not now. There's the rub. But I will say two viewings of the two episodes did prompt me to check and redouble my home carbon saving efforts, a result for David against the Goliath of climate change evidence. Worth looking at, for your and the planet's sake.