By Wayne Karrfalt
Special to TelevisionWeek
The Weather Channel earlier this month launched what is perhaps the most ambitious weekly program yet about environmental issues. “The Climate Code With Dr. Heidi Cullen,” which premiered Oct. 1 and runs Sundays at 5 p.m. (ET), takes a humanistic approach to unlocking the myriad issues surrounding global warming and the profound changes it is bringing around the world.
The show combines scientific findings and evidence with analysis of what these findings mean to sustaining life on Earth. Each week’s show begins by looking at a new phenomenon, such as the many heat records that were set this past summer, then touches upon related issues, in this case connecting weather to climate changes that are occurring in many discernible ways. Each week visiting scientists, policy makers and celebrity environmentalists join the host to share their views.
The Weather Channel invested in an advanced set that Ms. Cullen uses to help present a visual context to issues she tackles. Computer-generated imagery can be superimposed behind her, around her or under her feet so she can, for example, appear to walk on water when talking about how the oceans’ levels are rising each year. It is shot with high-definition cameras to take advantage of TWC’s planned launch of an HD service in the coming months.
Ms. Cullen, a climatologist who has specialized in the areas of history and climate variability, seems the perfect host for a show that sets out to bring what has been perceived as a pure science issue down to earth. She is a natural at articulating complex issues and convincing listeners of their ultimate relevance.
She said part of the problem is that global warming has been so politicized that it no longer seems real to many viewers. Cracking the climate code will mean bringing the issue home to average folk.
“We want to start with science and end up with people in their own back yards,” Ms. Cullen said. “We will use science to cut through all this clutter that has arisen and show that science does agree that global warming is happening, but we also want to take it home to people and show them this is not an esoteric issue just for celebrities and rich people.”
So along with tours of Laura Turner Seydel’s “Eco-Manor,” a multimillion-dollar home designed by Ted Turner’s daughter that runs on solar and geothermal energy, “The Climate Code” also features a weekly segment called “Climate Changers.” It profiles regular people, nominated by viewers, who are making a difference in their hometowns.
“We’ve kind of factored the environment out of our lives. We want to show people anyone can have an impact,” said Ms. Cullen.
For instance, an early episode caught up with Majora Carter, founder and executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, a community organization that is fighting for sustainable development projects in a city that has long been a dumping ground for New York’s five buroughs. Ms. Carter’s current proposal is to build a recycling center that will help create “green-collar jobs” for its residents, but she is facing opposition from a competing city plan to build a prison on the same spot.
“How ironic,” Ms. Carter said. “What we need is to find these people jobs to keep them out of prison.”
Ms. Cullen also visited the World Trade Center site to talk with designers and engineers who are implementing the latest environmentally friendly features as part of the new construction, from heat-trapping glass to drainage systems that recycle wastewater. She even talked to two teamsters who say are they are psyched about driving low-sulfur-emitting diesel trucks because the fumes they create aren’t nearly as bad on the lungs.
In sharing the experiences of everyday people, Ms. Cullen hopes to spur her viewers to action. Yet she also understands that politics can never be completely removed from the discussion of human impact on climate, given the importance of government incentive programs and industry regulation.
She admitted that she does not think the current presidential administration is staffed with heroes of the cause. Even after the environmental disaster that was Hurricane Katrina opened America’s eyes to how climate changes can impact people’s lives, the administration remains reluctant to relate it to the issue of global warming. The issue of environmental justice comes up when discussing Katrina on the show, Ms. Cullen said, the unfortunate truth being that people with the most limited means end up living in the most vulnerable areas.
A Lesson in Hubris
Katrina did provide a lesson in hubris, according to the climatologist, and was a tragic case for her of “I told you so.” Ms. Cullen worked on the New Orleans episode of TWC’s original series “It Could Happen Tomorrow,” which eerily predicted what would happen if a Category 5 hurricane hit the Big Easy. The episode was being readied in the weeks before Katrina slammed into New Orleans, but the network postponed its telecast in the wake of the storm’s devastation.
“Scientists have been saying New Orleans is vulnerable for 20 years,” she said. “We take no pleasure in saying we told you this was going to happen.”
On a brighter note, she said, Katrina has focused more attention on the issue of global warming as a whole, and added that her show will further examine what has been learned from the disaster. After all, the stories surrounding New Orleans dovetail perfectly with “The Climate Code’s” ultimate goal: to create a dialogue and tell stories sufficiently compelling to ensure that the issue stays front and center on viewers’ minds.
“Coming back every week will help,” Ms. Cullen said. “We have the ability to make this a compelling issue that viewers will want to keep tuning in to. We’re not trying to say this is the single most important issue on the planet, but let’s at least put it in the top five.”