Frontline’s HEAT: A Review

November 4, 2008

I love PBS’ Frontline (as my students will tell you) and was very much looking forward to its recently released two-hour documentary on global warming, entitled HEAT.  Sadly, the program fell far short of my expectations.

While the program delivered flashes of insight, it spent too much time finger pointing and not enough time thoughtfully evaluating potential solutions to reducing US carbon emissions.  (Though maybe I am just a climate change curmudgeon, since I made a similar complaint about Gore’s Inconvenient Truth here.)

More specifically, I was disappointed by:

  1. All the tear-jerking testimonials about how bad global warming is getting, without concrete suggestions on what to do about it. — Simply talking about the need to switch to alternative energy sources does not count as a concrete solution.
  2. Finger pointing at the “bad guys” in the auto, coal, and oil industry.  — Nothing new there.  Its time to move on in order to try to build consensus around realistic solutions to the problem.
  3. The video footage of CA Governor Schwarzenegger crushing the car. — More empty rhetoric.  I would have much preferred to have learned what CA gains by taking the lead on this issue.  What are the cost-benefit trade off’s (economic, social, environmental) that Schwarzenegger factored in when making these decisions?
  4. The program’s focus on the US’ oppositional stance towards a stronger UNFCCC treaty and its Kyoto protocol. — Again, nothing new.  Given the broad recognition about this treaty’s fundamental flaws, it would have been much more interesting to hear about the role the US could constructively play in a post-Kyoto world.
  5. The program’s “10 Year Deadline” Mantra — While the show drilled home that we only have 10 years to act if we are serious about staving off the catastrophic effects of climate change, I kept asking myself what specifically are we supposed to do?  Turn off more lights?  Buy an electric car?  Where is the plan for action?  What are the specific costs and consequences of not acting?  For the US, for this generation, for the next?  All these questions are left unanswered.

Its not that the program is not worth watching (I’ll likely assign it to this year’s Human Security students). HEAT did effectively illustrate the economic and political obstacles to to reducing US fossil fuel dependency and how both US Democratic and Republican leaders share the blame for this policy failure.  I just didn’t think that this program moved our understanding of the issue any further forward.

What I would like to see, perhaps in “HEAT: The Sequel”, is a thorough comparison of alternative road maps to an 80 % reduction in carbon emissions by 2050.

  1. What will it take (technologically, economically, and in terms of “life style sacrifice”) for the US to reach this target?  What about China and India and the EU (because there is no point in any one country acting unilaterally on this issue)?  Are developed countries factoring in the amount of money they will have to spend to help the rest of the world?
  2. Assuming we can’t reach that target — which frankly speaking, is a fairly realistic assumption at this point — what major work is being done to deal with the consequences ?  What are the current plans and cost estimates for adaptation strategies (for example, building higher sea walls to address sea level rise)?  Is there a point where the world will need to shift its political and economic focus to adaptation instead of mitigation?

What topics would you like to see covered in a hard-hitting, compelling documentary on climate change policy?

UPDATE: The Boston Review has a good piece on on the need to focus on climate change adaptation efforts NOW.

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2 Responses to “Frontline’s HEAT: A Review”

  1. Sandeep Says:

    ok so i (finally) finished watching…and while I agree with ur view that it’s more info than what we should do…i quite feel the program(as well as an inconvenient truth) aims at an audience that is relatively in the dark about what global warming actually is…recall that an inconvenient truth started out as a presentation…

    so ultimately i agree with ur view about the “emptiness” of the video…but then maybe we’re looking in the wrong placE?


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