Years of Living Dangerously Returns To Television Sunday

The National Geographic documentary series deals with the political realities of climate change that our presidential election has largely ignored.

Years of Living Dangerously Returns To TV Sunday

This year sees the implementation of the world’s first agreement to combat climate change. An inadequate but major milestone, the Paris agreement was driven in part by President Barack Obama’s willingness to take some initial action to confront this looming threat to our planet. Yet the topic of climate change hardly came up in this year’s presidential debates.

Fortunately, voters — or at least those with access to the National Geographic Channel — will have the opportunity to see an in-depth, prime-time discussion of the issue when Years of Living Dangerously returns to television this weekend. The series, which aired its Emmy Award-winning first season on Showtime in 2014, features celebrity hosts going where the Commission on Presidential Debates apparently feared to tread, exploring the steps we need to take to keep our planet’s climate in balance and the reasons why making progress has been so difficult so far.

Retired, voluminously bearded late-night host David Letterman is featured on the Season 2 premiere. He journeys to India, where the country’s rapid expansion is evident in the nests of electrical wires that hang from buildings and telephone poles, part of a slipshod grid that causes daily power outages, even in some of the country’s largest cities. Nearly 30 percent of the country’s electricity is lost before it reaches consumers. Though solar holds huge potential for India — a potential that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set ambitious goals to tap — the country’s government also remains committed to expanding its fleet of coal power plants.

Those coal-fired plants mean that some of India’s cities have the worst air quality in the world — worse even than China’s notoriously smoggy metropolises. Indians in the capital city of New Delhi sweep the soot from their floors and window sills multiple times daily; residents of major Indian cities who check Google weather will often find that the day’s forecast is only “smoke.” And, of course, these coal plants drive climate change.

Yet when Letterman interviews the country’s minister of power, coal, renewable energy and mines (yes, all one job) and Modi himself, both insist that the country must keep burning coal. And their reasons are compelling: Some 300 million Indians still are unconnected to the electrical grid — that’s only slightly less than the total number of people living in America. Modi, the leader of the world’s largest democracy, insists — and has insisted since he was first elected — that India’s first priority must be development, and that development requires the country to exploit every energy source available.

Climate change is a pressing concern that poses a dire threat to India. Heatwaves, sea level rise, flooding and drought will all hit India harder than many more developed countries in more temperate climates. But as India moves through its industrial revolution, Modi wants the countries that went through their own revolutions a century ago, and are wealthier for it today, to do the heavy lifting in addressing the climate crisis.

This initial episode of Years of Living Dangerously Season 2 weaves together this thread with our own, American struggle to confront climate change. As Letterman explores India, Saturday Night Live’s Cecily Strong steps into the role of investigative reporter, first in Nevada and then in Florida, where electric utility monopolies have waged an uncompromising fight against rooftop solar.

“Being in a fossil fuel company that was that big, I was awed at the extent of their political influence,” Bryan Miller, a former lobbyist for Exxon who joined the solar industry, tells Strong. In state capitals, he said, companies like Exxon would contract with so many local lobbyists — even if there wasn’t work for these lobbyists to do — that the solar industry would have trouble finding anyone registered as a lobbyist who could advocate for their cause without having a conflict of interest.

These tactics have succeeded in dramatically slowing down solar installation in America’s sunniest states, where industry officials have cozy relationships with their regulators and politicians, and wage campaigns to change state laws through anti-solar ballot measures that are designed to appear pro-solar to voters. These ballot measures, one Florida industry insider recently bragged in a leaked tape from a closed door meeting, are “incredibly savvy maneuver[s]” that “would completely negate anything they [pro-solar interests] would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road.”

The success of this kickoff to Years of Living Dangerously’s second season is in the juxtapositions it creates. While industry operatives in America fight to keep energy dirty, India is struggling to bring power to a quarter of its 1.2 billion people. To ward off the worst effects of climate change, both countries will have to adopt greener strategies than the ones they are currently pursuing, and will have to reach beyond the promises they made under the Paris deal.

For India, that reality poses a series of tough questions that will affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people living in deep poverty of a sort virtually unknown in our country. For the US, it is simply a matter of whether or not the well-funded and well-connected utility monopolies continue to win their political battles. There really is no comparison.

Season two of Years of Living Dangerously opens Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on the National Geographic Channel. Watch a clip below:

John Light


John Light is a reporter and producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.