A companionable guide to climate change

By Jack Williams ©2015

Until I watched the preview DVD of “Earth: The Operators’ Manual” a couple of weeks ago, I had never viewed a television program about climate change that I particularly liked.

PBS stations began airing the show on April 10–with some showing it a few days later. More information on the show and when it’s scheduled to run is available online.

While other climate change programs I’ve viewed were often well-produced with stunning scenes of polar oceans (with the obligatory forlorn polar bear), a huge iceberg near an Antarctic ice shelf, drought-stricken farmlands, or clear-cut rain forests, they tended to be heavy on gloom-and-doom projections and light on the nuts and bolts of how people are affecting the climate.

Program host Richard Alley, a geology professor at Penn State University, was once called "the Woody Allen of climate change." Photo by Geoff Haines-Stiles

The science tended to be arm-waving, “scientists say” arguments that didn’t go far in explaining why they say what they say.

Watching “Earth: The Operators’ Manual” was more like sitting down over a couple of beers with an amicable neighbor who happens to know a lot about a topic and who is willing to help you understand what’s going on–with the help of some neat video.

The biggest problem in persuading people, including politicians, that human actions are affecting earth’s climate and that we should respond to this threat is convincing them that scientists who say we are affecting the climate have sound reasons for saying this.

While the question of what to do–if anything–about the threat of climate change is a political one, understanding why we should be arguing about what to do is a scientific question. Those who don’t want to talk seriously about what to do find it easier to dismiss the science than trying to understand it.

This is where Earth: The Operators’ Manual comes in.

I think Richard Alley, the television narrator and author of the companion book with the same title, does the best job of connecting with ordinary people about climate change that I’ve ever seen on television.

Using Alley, a highly regarded climate scientist as the narrator is a stroke of genius. Narrators of television science shows often sound like the folks who do the voice overs for those political attack ads we love to hate.

Alley comes across as a real scientist who knows what he’s talking about because he is a real scientist who knows what he’s talking about.

“In Earth: The Operators’ Manual” Alley quickly lays to rest a common stereotype of scientists by saying he’s a registered Republican who goes to church with his kids. With that out of the way, he takes  viewers on a fascinating journey though the strong evidence of humans’ role in climate change.

If you accept the science of climate change, you’re faced with what to do about it without wrecking the global economy. Here too, Alley gives us some glimpses at some of the things being done to address climate change.

Rear Admiral David Titley, the oceanographer of the Navy, considers climate change a threat multiplier. Photo by Art Howard.

He takes us not only to melting glaciers but also to unexpected places where I’ve never seen a climate change documentary go, including Fort Irwin and Camp Pendleton where the Army and Marines are learning how to use wind and solar power at small, remote bases. They want to replace some of the fuel that costs lives in attacks on convoys hauling gasoline in places such as Afghanistan.

For the military “green” energy is a way to save lives and money, not a subject for jokes about latte-sipping, Prius drivers–always good for a chuckle in some circles on Capitol Hill.

Alley interviews Rear Admiral David Titley, Oceanographer of the Navy, about why the military sees clear evidence of climate change, and how it is likely not only to affect bases and day-to-day operations but could be a cause for wars that could threaten U.S. interests.
Titley explains that he accepts that  science offers projections that the Navy–and others–can use to make sound decisions. The Navy worries about sea-level rise–one effect of a warming world–for obvious reasons: Most of its largest bases are on deep water.
The Naval base threatened by sea-level rise that Alley takes us to is Pearl Harbor–the site of the sunken USA Arizona World War II Memorial–and still an active naval base.
The producer, Geoff Haines-Stiles, says that neither he nor Alley  thought of an historical connection between today’s military concern about climate change and the Arizona Memorial: One could argue that the military’s prudent actions to meet the challenges and threats of climate change is another example of the hard-won, bitter military lessons of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Just as many Americans today, including some politicians, ridicule the science of climate change, many in the U.S. Navy and Army (there was no U.S. Air Force then), as well as politicians, ridiculed the potential Japanese threat in the early 1940s even though the Japanese army had overrun large parts of China, and Japan had built, manned, and trained a large, modern navy with aircraft carriers. They didn’t see Japan as a major threat. Why?

“Pervasive biases, including a presumption of technological superiority, stereotyping, and even outright racism … blinded many American eyes, writes Ralph Lee Defalco III  in a 2003 issue of the International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. He writes:

The show's writer-dierctor Geoff Haines-Stiles (left) and videographer Art Howard at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. They were with a Navy public officer who gave permission for photography. Photo by Anna Belle Peevey

“In the United States, popular magazine reports of Japanese aviation fostered images of pilots      plagued by poor eyesight, physical handicaps, and mechanical ineptitude… Professional journals of the time echoed many of the same sentiments. A wide assumption was that the Japanese simply could not design their own aircraft and relied, instead, on reverse engineering Western-built aircraft, or outright purchases of foreign types… Japan, many American experts believed, was just incapable of forging the weapons of modern aviation. Downloadable PDF file of the article.

For many Americans this is part of a dim past. Military professionals know the lessons of what happened at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. One of these lessons is don’t let your ideology–whether it’s simple racism or an obsession about “socialism”–blind you to the real world.

I’m pleased to discover that Earth: The Operators’ Manual is available both as a hardback book and a Kindle edition from Amazon. The Kindle edition is now on my iPad to go along on a Flight to London in a couple of weeks.

From glancing through the 479-page hardback I see many things I want to explore in more depth than the television show offers, such as Alley’s explanation of how the earth had much higher levels of carbon dioxide in the air at various times in the distant past–long before humans were on the scene–making earth much warmer than now.

Speaking of Alley’s books, if you think you would be at all interested in how scientists go about using ice cores to learn about past climates, I highly recommend his The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future. In fact, if  you don’t think you’d be interested in learning more about ice cores, this book could change your mind.

For more on his latest book and the television show, go to Earth: The Operators’ Manual website, which offers a lot of bonus material, including information for teachers.

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