In Depth

The ‘Hot’ Topic

Filmmaker Peter Bull’s Hour for ‘Frontline’ Traces the Political History of Climate Change

Among the SEJ Awards for Reporting on the Environment being given out at this week’s conference is one in the category of outstanding beat/in-depth reporting in television. Filmmaker Peter Bull is one of three finalists in the category for his “Frontline” piece “Hot Politics,” about the political history of climate change.

Mr. Bull came up with the idea for “Hot Politics” during his years at ABC News and PBS’ “Now With Bill Moyers.” “I was a senior producer and worked with outside journalists who did pieces for the show, but my real love is making films, not managing a broadcast, and I was excited to go back and produce my own films and the first thing I did was go to the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2003,” said Mr. Bull.

“Global warming was the topic of our times and it was still not recognized in the media at that time. I approached ‘Frontline,’ which has a long-term relationship with the Center for Investigative Reporting, and they went for it. The focus of the hour became the politics of global warming. It tries to explain why our nation has taken so long to recognize this as a real problem.”

Mr. Bull’s program brings historical perspective to perhaps the most important environmental story of the century thus far, global warming. “Hot Politics” goes back in time to look at the presidential administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “Why have we not seemed to have the political will to go along with the Kyoto Treaty and keep up with the rest of the world in terms of responsibility when it comes to climate change?” Mr. Bull asked.

Much as the tobacco industry fought the scientist who reported the connection between smoking and cancer, the fossil fuel industry did the same with global warming. “They were protecting their assets. They went all out to raise questions, and the media was the huge culprit in this,” said Mr. Bull. “At ABC News I pitched stories about global warming in the mid-’80s and they wouldn’t buy it. When they did do a story on it, they would bend over backward to talk to the skeptics. Those skeptics represented only 1% of the scientific community, but received 50% of the airtime.”

As an environmental journalist, Mr. Bull appreciates the assistance provided by SEJ and advises others to use the association’s resources.

“The first thing is to get educated. You have to understand the science inside out, because you can’t confront people who are defending their interests and know if they’re not telling unless you are armed with the best possible information,” he said. “I have always found as a journalist that I need to be completely over-prepared. You have to become an expert in the field; that’s a given in environmental journalism. Also, don’t take any information on the surface. The trail of influences and interests that are trying to be defended is complex, especially in areas where the science is complicated and the industrial links are very subtle.”

Mr. Bull plans to premiere a new film during the SEJ Conference: “Blackout,” a 90-minute theatrical documentary on coal.

“It’s an extension of the story in ‘Hot Politics,’” he said. “Coal is the elephant in the room for climate change and energy issues. Coal is the fossil fuel that emits the most carbon dioxide. It also provides 50% of our nation’s electricity. We cannot keep burning coal or global warming will kill us.

“All these ads that are playing for clean coal are centered on getting off foreign oil, and we have this resource here at home—but it’s not clean and it has nothing to do with your car. Clean coal is pandering to the sense that America wants to be energy independent. But if you dig under the surface, coal has nothing to do with energy independence. It has everything to do with electricity. The coal industry is continuing to say that if we don’t burn more coal and build more coal plants, the lights are going to go out. They won’t be able to meet the electrical demand without coal. Environmentalists want to shut down coal immediately.”