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Geologist Richard Alley’s ‘Operators Manual’ TV Documentary and Book… A Feast for Viewers and Readers

Posted on 7 April 2011 by Bud Ward

Guest post by Bud Ward, Editor of The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media

No one’s likely to mistake Penn State University geologist Richard B. Alley for a movie star. Or even for a TV anchor.

For a scientist?  Yes.  And for an outstanding communicator of climate change science in particular? “You betcha!” as a well-known American politician and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin – whose in-depth familiarity with the climate changes affecting her own state leaves room for improvement – is fond of saying.

It’s the caliber of Alley’s technical expertise and issue mastery, combined with a style of explaining complex issues with the clarity of a bell chime, that warrants those “You betchas!”

Alley makes his big-time television debut on a number of American public broadcasting television stations April 10. As a companion broadcast to his newly published “Earth: The Operator’s Manual,” published by W.W. Norton, the first of three planned Public Broadcasting System one-hour documentaries likely will have a larger audience than the 479-page hardback can expect to reach. The second in the three-part series – funded through a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation for about $3 million USD – is scheduled to air before the end of 2011, and producers are aiming for April 2012 for the third installment.

The affable and accessible Alley comes across in the television documentary as something of a loveable science geek or nerd, but above all else as a truly committed and deeply knowledgeable climate expert, with real concerns about what the future warming world may hold for his children and theirs (and yours). He positions himself early as “a proud member” of the United Nations/World Meteorological Organization’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and one who “knows the risks.” Early in the program, he quickly feels compelled – no doubt reflecting the highly polarized politicization of the climate debate in the U.S. and reflecting input from some focus groups – to describe himself also as “a registered Republican” who enjoys playing soccer on Saturdays and regularly attending church on Sundays. In the preface to his book, in his effort to be “a truly honest broker on such complex topics,” he points to his having enjoyed his earlier work in the oil industry and to his political registration being “right of center.”

No one can say at this point whether those qualifications will in fact endear him or his views on the climate challenges to Republican senators and House members in the U.S. Congress, for whom skepticism of all-things-warming appears to many to have become a badge of honor and price of admission.

With his party affiliation and political preferences there for all to see, Alley makes clear in his book – and in other ways also in the TV documentary – his overall take on the issue of human-caused climate change:

“My knowledge of Earth’s history and behavior contributed to the confident realization that the CO2 from our fossil-fuel burning is highly likely to change the world in fundamental ways that will increasingly make life harder for future generations,” including his two daughters who, he allows, “give me a personal as well as a professional stake in the search for a stable, sustainable world.”

As a TV showman in a climate science field yearning to have effective public emissaries and ambassadors capable of communicating effectively with non-scientist audiences and policy-makers, Alley clearly is enjoying himself and on the top of his game in the first installment. He gestures freely and naturally in making his science-based case, provides easily understood metaphors to bring home a point, and uses effective one-liners for viewers to embed in their memories.  “Physics is physics,” he allows at one point, emphasizing that an early Air Force study of atmospheric issues related to warfare in fact ended up revealing important aspects of warming.

He in fact comes across as the opposite of the “pointy-headed” scientist or academic pontificating from on-high to the masses, instead showing himself to be deeply knowledgeable, thoroughly committed…and more than a little bit worried about the warming notwithstanding his hopeful optimism in humanity’s ability to right itself.

For a U.S. audience, and perhaps in particular for conservative politicians and officials somewhat prone to dismiss climate change as just the latest green fad, Alley in the first one-hour feature dwells considerably on U.S. military attitudes toward climate change. For those beyond the U.S., that emphasis need not detract from the merits of extensive segments featuring Alley and his research in a deep crevasse on New Zealand’s North Island, and from sites in Brazil, Spain, and China.    

Outlining the rationale behind the documentary, writer/director Geoff Haines-Stiles (whose credits include his having produced Carl Sagan’s Emmy-Award-winning public television “Cosmos” series) described the programming as providing “the best climate science, but we know today’s audiences want to see solutions, and not just restatements of the problems.”

The program “is a rigorously researched, beautifully filmed, and ultimately uplifting antidote to the widespread ‘doom and gloom’ approach to climate change,” according to an “Earth: The Operator’s Manual” (“ETOM”) press statement. While providing a “thorough grounding” in Earth’s climate history and an overview of the “current dilemmas,” it says, the “main thrust is an upbeat assessment of our many viable sustainable energy options.”

Don’t dare mistake that feel-good language, however, as suggesting a sugar-coating or glossing-over of the challenging details of climate science.  Or, for that matter, of the sobering implications of a much warmer world. Few climate contrarians or “skeptics” are likely to find comfort in Alley’s rigid analysis or in his science-based conclusions, either in the book or in the documentary.  His broadcast explanation of the different signatures associated with Carbon 12, 13, and 14, for instance, leaves little doubt that the observed warming of our atmosphere can be traced back to “the burning of plants dead a long time – fossil fuels” and not to the natural causes so dear to committed climate science doubters.

For those whose appetites are duly whetted by the three TV documentaries, let alone by the first one, now broadly available through various channels in and beyond the U.S., the Norton hard-cover provides a veritable feast. Reflecting the communicator side of Alley’s impressive expertise, the 479-page hardback consists of a full 146 pages of notes and footnotes, most of them demonstrating Alley’s reliance on refereed scientific literature and scientific assessments. It take no marketing genius to suspect that publishing company Norton might not have readily embraced devoting some one-third of the printed pages to footnotes, but it’s testimony to Alley’s commitment to the rigorous science.

For audiences beyond the U.S. yearning to view the first one-hour installment, the program will be streamed as of April 11 from the program’s official website . Click on the left on “broadcast info” to view the full program. A DVD of the documentary also is available for purchase from that site.

In U.S. climate change circles, Alley generally has been considered among the most audience-friendly and authoritative communicators, a field that recently experienced a major loss with the death last year of Stanford University climate scientist Stephen H. Schneider. Even before this new broadcast foray, Alley has been viewed as one potential heir-apparent. Nothing he has done either with this first documentary or with the full book is likely to change that, and his acknowledgement of his party registration and political leanings can only further the prospect that he might at last succeed in breaking down some of the ideological barriers that over the past decade have posed an insurmountable obstacle to the U.S.’s moving forward with effective climate strategies and policies.

Overcoming those challenges – and mollifying died-in-the-wool skeptics, as at least one reviewer has anticipated based on the TV documentary – won’t come overnight and, like everything else dealing with the climate change issue, won’t come easily. But Alley’s entry into the climate science broadcast arena offers a significant additional step in that direction.  View it. And read the book too.  You’ll like them both.

The hard-back book catalog number is ISBN 978-0-393-08109-1. in early April was listing it for $16.98 USD.

Watch the full episode. See more EARTH: The Operators Manual.

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Comments 1 to 18:

  1. Alley has something that is very useful in academia. He is very good at communicating with the general public. He is also approachable. If you send him an email there is a high probability that you will get a reply. I may not agree with him but I like his style.
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  2. I'm an Alley fan since I came across his "Greatest Knob" lecture on the net. He's quite a character, really charismatic. It's the kind of outreach this issue needs. I'll definetly watch it.
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  3. His "Greatest Knob" talk can be found here, for the interested. Off-topic, but inspired, is another talk by the selfsame Alley which shows his genius at communication. The Yooper
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  4. Someone needs to post a review on Amazon. There is only one review with a short paragraph of denier points. I ordered the book and will post a review after I read it.
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  5. Earth: The Operator’s Manual is a very exciting project, and I very much look forward to reading the book and watching the series. Here is a challenge to all here. So far I have emailed the ETOM URL to 9 academics across North America (and one in Africa), as well as someone associated with an NGO. A very modest tally, so it should be easy to beat. I also plan on emailing it to members of parliament. Come on SkS readers, let us spread the word. Do I hear a 20?
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  6. Bibasir, Sadly Tea Party types have been bragging online about ow they go to Amazon and give poor reviews on liberal books. I assume that is now also applicable to climate science books. Have no fear, others who have actually read the book will soon post rational reviews based on the content, not on ideology.
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  7. bibasir, I agree. I'll post a review after I read it.
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  8. what Alexandre said...
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  9. For those here in Oz, here's the Booko listing. Best price seems to be $23.45 including delivery. I look forward to seeing that documentary!
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  10. My local PBS station, KPBS in San Diego, isn't showing the program until April 20 at 10:00 PM.
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  11. In the film trailer, Alley says, "...but a growing population needs more and more clean energy." If there isn't even enough clean energy for the people around today, how could there be "more and more" going forward? We seem to have a slight backlog issue.
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  12. Nice post Bud. We are hosting a discussion forum for educators about ETOM at Dr. Alley will answer selected questions on the forum as his time permits. This is a moderated forum which is part of our CIRES climate education work at the U. of Colorado Boulder. Many teachers use videos to introduce a topic. ETOM has great potential for this purpose.
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  13. "If there isn't even enough clean energy for the people around today, how could there be "more and more" going forward? We seem to have a slight backlog issue." I'll tell you one thing RSVP, whatever challenges are faced by clean energy going forward is going to go *triple* for dirty, *non-renewable* resources like Coal, Oil & Uranium. Even with the current population & current global energy use we don't have enough non-renewable resources to sustain our population into the 22nd century. What do you think will happen in 50 years if we have 9 *billion* people-all trying to achieve the same energy density as is currently enjoyed in the First World? Of course, if we help the developing world to achieve 1st World standards of living in a *clean* & *efficient* manner, then history suggests that this will help to *plateau* the rate of population growth & avoid an epic energy crisis.
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  14. Also, RSVP, its worth noting that humanity has barely *begun* to tap the planet's clean energy potential. Solar, Wind, Geothermal, Tidal & Biomass energy-not to mention emergent technologies like osmotic energy-are all in their relative infancy, with *huge* potential for growth. Unfortunately that growth continues to be stunted by politicians & business people who are *obsessed* with so-called "cheap" fossil fuels. Apparently they're blind to the fact that these fossil fuels would never have *been* cheap without the massive public & private sector support, over more than 50 years, to make them so-a level of support they're determined to deny the Clean Energy sector.
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  15. I've just watched on line, and I think this is great, upbeat presentation. The military angle helps with the part of the american public that has problems with references to Weart's history. Cheers
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  16. I watched this last night. I thought it was pretty decent. I thought it was going to cover more of the science of climate change than the renewable options, but it was still good. The parts that were about the science were concise and irrefutable. I also liked how it looked at the renewable options from a military perspective. The video also made a good point about how the military generally leads the way when it comes to cultural changes and that left me a little reassured about the future.
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  17. The website, linked above, also has a good FAQ section which should probably be linked as a nice "start here" reference...
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  18. I understood this is just the first of a series. Does anyone know when's the next to come?
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