Climate change gets the blockbuster treatment on Showtime

Clad in a military-style flight suit and aviator shades, Harrison Ford walks across a sunny tarmac and climbs into a fighter jet and takes off. Soon, he’s soaring 5,000 feet above California.

Ford is not starring as the hero of a summer blockbuster but in fact is tagging along on a NASA mission to measure levels of methane and carbon dioxide, two primary greenhouse gases, in the atmosphere in the premiere of Showtime’s new climate-change documentary, “Years of Living Dangerously.” The series premieres Sunday.

The idea for the nine-part series emerged not from the halls of a progressive think tank but over lunches at a Greek diner near the CBS Broadcast Center in New York about four years ago. At the time, series creators David Gelber and Joel Bach were veteran producers on “60 Minutes.” Though they’d been able to do several stories about climate change for the esteemed TV news magazine, the pair longed to collaborate on a project focusing solely on “the biggest story out there,” Gelber said. “We felt that it was important to do something that had the power to put this back on the national agenda.”

Though numerous documentaries — most notably the 2006 Oscar-winner “An Inconvenient Truth” with former Vice President Al Gore — had already explored the dire threat of global warming, Gelber and Bach felt there was room, even a need, for a more engaging, cinematic approach to the subject. Instead of relying on sober talking heads and a litany of grim statistics, they wanted to combine high production values with deeply human stories to convey the urgency of climate change.

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“We didn’t want to do another competent documentary that would essentially preach to the choir and would be seen by a relatively small audience who already agreed this is a big deal,” Gelber said.

They recruited a trio of big-name executive producers — filmmaker James Cameron, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and veteran Hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub — and quickly sold the project to Showtime.

“I’m always looking for things that feel like a new way to do television, a new way to use television, and this felt like a really deep dive into one of the issues of our moment,” Showtime President David Nevins said.

A guiding maxim for the project came from legendary “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt, according to Gelber.

“I wanted to do a story on acid rain. He said, ‘Gelber, we don’t do stories about acid rain, we do stories about people who do something about acid rain,’ ” recalled the Emmy-winning Gelber.

Schwarzenegger, who as governor worked to reduce greenhouse emissions, approves of this humanistic approach.

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“We need to spend more time showing people how climate change impacts their lives instead of talking about data,” he wrote in an email. “Each of these stories has a very human element, and gives people of any background a reason to join the crusade for a clean energy future.” (Schwarzenegger also serves as a correspondent in “Years,” following a crew of elite forest-fire fighters in Montana.)

“Years of Living Dangerously” focuses not on melting glaciers or polar bears but instead tells unexpected, character-driven stories about people directly affected by or involved in the climate-change crisis. Stylistically, however, the project is a departure from the staid documentary format, with the saturated color palette, exotic locales and suspenseful pace of a globe-trotting action-adventure blockbuster — perhaps not surprising, given its Hollywood pedigree. “Years” also boasts bona fide movie stars: To expand the project’s reach, producers enlisted Matt Damon, Jessica Alba and Don Cheadle as correspondents. (Seasoned journalists are involved too, including Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” and food writer Mark Bittman.)

The premiere episode weaves together three very different tales of communities affected by climate change. Ford journeys to the Indonesian jungle to investigate rampant deforestation fueled by demand for palm oil; in the dusty town of Plainview, Texas, Cheadle visits with a woman who, along with 2,300 others, was laid off when the local meatpacking plant shuttered after years of drought. Meanwhile, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman crosses the border into Syria to see how extreme weather conditions exacerbated political instability in the war-torn country.

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Of course, the involvement of so many showbiz names is a double-edged sword. While the presence of easy-on-the-eyes celebs like Ian Somerhalder and Olivia Munn will almost certainly help attract some viewers, it’s also likely to rankle the Fox News crowd, already highly suspicious of Prius-driving Hollywood types.

“Years of Living Dangerously” makes an earnest attempt to bridge the partisan divide on climate change. (Between Schwarzenegger and Weintraub, a self-described “fiscal conservative” who produced the HBO documentary “41" about George H.W. Bush, two of the project’s executive producers fall outside Hollywood’s left-leaning consensus.) In addition to Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University who also happens to be an evangelical Christian, the series also showcases Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina who now works to promote free-market solutions to climate change.

Following a winter in which both coasts were rocked by extreme weather, and just a few weeks after the release of a U.N. report issuing dire warnings about climate change, the series couldn’t be landing at a more opportune moment. Nevertheless, the project has its critics. An op-ed this week in the New York Times accused the filmmakers of using “scare tactics” to stir viewers into action, an accusation Gelber dismisses as a “rush to judgment” based on the series trailer.

For his part, Gelber is optimistic about the fight against global warming, comparing the current situation to the early days of the civil rights movement. Paraphrasing Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, he said, “We’re the first generation to experience in our lifetime the effects of climate change, but the last generation that has the chance to really do something about it.”

‘Years of Living Dangerously’

Where: Showtime

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)