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

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.

Posted by Bud Ward on Thursday, 7 April, 2011

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