In Depth

PBS Turns Up the ‘Heat’

‘Frontline’ Installment Probes the Response of Business and Governments to Climate Change

On Tues., Oct. 21, “Frontline” will air “Heat,” a two-hour investigation of how the world’s largest corporations and governments are responding to climate change caused by global warming. “Heat” is part of the “PBS Vote 2008” election coverage in acknowledgement of the more urgent role of environmental issues in the 2008 presidential campaign. The program is a co-production of “Frontline” with RAINmedia, an independent production company that has produced more than 20 hours of programming for “Frontline.” The executive producer of “Frontline” is David Fanning.

“We picked up where other ‘Frontline’ stories left off,” said Martin Smith, award-winning executive producer at RAINmedia, who produced, wrote and reported “Heat” with co-producer Chris Durrance. “There’s been a lot of coverage about the science of global warming, and it was clear that this was becoming less of a science story and more of a business story. We thought we should look at the big players in the business arena who are going to be most effective in any changes that happen.”

Crucial to the story told in “Heat” is the tension between big business and government. “Because business responds to markets and doesn’t [make these kinds of changes] on its own, there’s going to be a lot of tensions between business and government,” said Mr. Smith. “The central question we were interested in is what the U.S. can do to take the lead. Given the nature and scale of the problem, are we equipped? How can our government respond to something that isn’t even that evident to people yet? How can we, in the time we’re being told we have, say 10 years, turn things around sufficiently? Is there the political will to make the compromises that will be necessary?”

These questions are addressed within the context of the current economic crisis, which makes dealing with environmental issues even more challenging. Mr. Smith and the RAINmedia team began by researching the topic. “It’s incredibly wonky, so it takes time to get up to speed,” he said. “It’s like financial stories: The issues are complex but important to understand.”

In the U.S., Mr. Smith approached a list of major corporations to ask for their participation. “We told them we weren’t taking this on as a science story but how they will deal with it when the government starts putting the screws on them,” he said. “Not every company wanted to participate—there’s a list of companies that said no. But we had Exxon Mobil, General Motors and some big utility companies that aren’t necessarily household names. Once they said they’d participate, we knew we could move forward. We would have covered the story regardless, but it makes it easier.”

“Heat” opens with a shot of a glacier on the side of Mount Everest, comparing a 1921 photo with a current shot, taken by Mr. Smith’s friend, mountaineer and filmmaker David Breshears when the two hiked to Everest base camp. “It’s a sick glacier,” said Mr. Smith. “It’s lost lots of ice, and if things don’t change, the Himalayan glaciers will lose 80 percent of their ice by 2030. These glaciers provide a lot of the irrigation and drinking water for hundreds of millions of people in China and India.”

China and India were both on the travel agenda, as RAINmedia traveled to 12 countries on four continents to investigate what major corporations and governments are doing about mitigating their role in global warming. In China and India, he interviewed corporate heads of Chinese coal companies and Indian SUV makers, revealing a disturbing global portrait of short-term economic interests taking the lead over environmental concerns. Ling Wen, CEO of Shenhua Energy, one of the largest and fastest-growing power companies in the world, related that his responsibility is to shareholders, not to the public good. India is creating a new, smaller car that will allow several hundred million new drivers to take to the streets.

Corporate heads in developing nations put the onus on the developed world to lead the way with environmental changes. “There’s a lot of resistance here in America that says we shouldn’t do anything until they agree to do more,” said Mr. Smith. “The counter-argument is that we have to show the way. So we talk to industrialists in China and India, but the focus is primarily on the U.S.”

The biggest challenge in making “Heat,” said Mr. Smith, was telling a complicated, issue-centric story. “It’s not a narrative, it’s an issue where everything connects to everything else,” he said. “So your choices going down the path aren’t a simple chronology. Fossil fuels are what civilizations around the world are built on. Cheap energy goes into everything. One has to address this by looking across the landscape at all these energy sources, and within each one are enormous complexities in looking at solutions, whether it’s coal sequestration or better fuel economy.”

“It’s important for people to see how our system is going to address problems that are going to require leadership,” he said. “So much of our energy policy has been special-interest groups pushing Washington to get their way. Climate change is about understanding we have a larger common interest in the future of the planet.”

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