Nova producers focus on the facts to educate on climate change

Ellen Glover • Oct. 16, 2017
Doug Hamilton, producer of PBS’s Nova, speaks about communicating climate change alongside his father Lee Hamilton, distinguished scholar at IU and a longtime Congressman. (Terry Wicks | The Media School)

PBS’s critically acclaimed science series, Nova, aired its first episode on climate change in 1988. Though scientists have understood the basics of the environmental threat since the mid-19th century, it was only beginning to become a controversial issue around that time, said producer Doug Hamilton.

Since then, Nova has produced 16 episodes on climate change. Hamilton and senior executive producer Paula Apsell are working on the show’s 17th — an episode called “Living with the Weather Machine” scheduled to air on Earth Day 2018 that Apsell says will be the “comprehensive, authoritative documentary” on climate change.

“With these political changes, it’s time to do a show that tries to marshal all the evidence of climate change,” said Apsell “All science is a story. This is a story about climate change.”

Apsell and Hamilton spoke as panelists Wednesday as part of The Media School’s Speaker Series, alongside Lee Hamilton, distinguished scholar and longtime Congressman, and Ellen Ketterson, distinguished professor in the Department of Biology and team leader for “Prepared for Environmental Change,” an interdisciplinary IU initiative. Lee Hamilton is Doug Hamilton’s father. The discussion, “Climate Change in a Politically Charged Environment,” focused on the challenges of communicating the reality of climate change.

To produce the upcoming climate change program, the producers set out to learn everything there is to know about climate change so they could then synthesize it for their audience. As part of this process, Doug Hamilton traveled all over the world, from the coral reefs of Australia to the frozen ice sheets of Greenland, to speak with a wide range of climate experts.

“The gap between what most people understand and what scientists talk about is huge. A lot of it is in the language,” he said. “I went out and talked to the smartest people I could find, and once I understood it, I knew it was ready for broadcast.”

But Ketterson said the science really isn’t that complicated.

Paula Apsell, senior executive producer of PBS’s Nova, shows a clip of an upcoming program on climate change. (Terry Wicks | The Media School)

“There is nothing threatening about the process of science. It’s not scary stuff,” she said. “Some people have dressed science up in a scary costume, and there is a belief that there is a privilege to understanding it.”

This ignorance toward science is one of the reasons Lee Hamilton said there are no clear and coherent national policies that address climate change.

He cited President Donald Trump’s assertion that climate change is a hoax invented by China as an example of this.

“When you have a leader who does not think there is a problem, then we don’t need a strategy, because there is no problem,” he explained.

Lee Hamilton said this lack of environmental policy is also due to the sharp partisan divisions on the subject. He said this can change if citizens take the initiative to let their representatives know that climate change is an issue that is important to them.

“Politicians are good at understanding the minds of their constituents,” Lee Hamilton said. “If constituents aren’t interested in climate change, then the politicians won’t focus on it.”

This is sometimes difficult for people to remember, though, because climate change is largely seen as an issue of the future, and people tend to focus more on what they consider to be immediate concerns, such as health care or the economy. But Lee Hamilton said climate change is directly tied to other, more obviously immediate issues, such as crises like refugees and food production issues.

Apsell said she worries that, despite all the advancements climate scientists have made, the recent rebellion against science will lead the world into the dark ages. She is trying to combat that with this Nova episode by promoting the legitimacy of climate change.

Ellen Ketterson, distinguished professor in the Department of Biology, describes the challenge of communicating the urgency of climate change in today’s political environment. (Terry Wicks | The Media School)

“We are doomed if we just try to persuade, though,” she said. “We also need to tell a story that works, in and of itself, as a story. … The goal is to put the message out there. Who knows how it will be received?”

Nova reaches an audience of diverse political opinions. Apsell said 40 percent of the show’s viewership self-identifies as conservative, and 10 percent are independent. But Doug Hamilton said he tries not to think about who to convince and instead focuses on gathering information and presenting it as clearly as possible. He said he aims to portray diverse perspectives from farmers and military officials, in addition to scientists. He wants to present the facts and avoid the heated aspects of the conversation that are so often used in the media today.

All panelists agreed that focusing on the facts is the most effective way to cover climate change in such a politically charged environment.

“The science is not hard to explain,” said Ketterson. “If we talk to each other with respect, we can reach a solution.”

Lee Hamilton urged Apsell and Doug Hamilton to convey the urgency of the issue in their upcoming program.

“This is an unforgiving issue, and I think my generation, your generation, is going to be judged in no small way on the way we respond to this,” he said. “We’re talking about the future of the planet.”