6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

Extreme Realities: Severe Weather, Climate Change, and Our National Security [Screening]

Webcast available

Webcast Recap

“We cannot ignore the new reality that climate change has become a major foreign policy issue in the 21st century,” a new film by Hal and Marilyn Weiner concludes.

And yet a majority of Americans don’t see it that way. According to a recent Pew Center study, only 4 in 10 Americans cite climate change as a global threat, making them the least concerned of the publics sampled.

Often, the ways in which climate change exacerbates existing crises and instability are highly complex and difficult to discern. With their new documentary, produced for PBS’ Journey to Planet Earth series, the Emmy Award-winning couple hopes to tease out the role of global environmental dynamics and extreme weather events in some of today’s most pressing foreign policy issues.

The Weiners screened Extreme Realities: Severe Weather, Climate Change, and Our National Security at the Wilson Center on November 6 and discussed the importance of storytelling and communication in mobilizing action to address climate change.

A Threat Multiplier

“It’s suddenly become a very complex world,” Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, explains in the film. “Economic, political, and environmental trends [are] interacting in ways we’ve not seen before.”

Rather than directly leading to conflict, climate change is acting as a threat multiplier, causing extreme weather events that can aggravate a range of underlying social, economic, and political conditions to spark conflict or instability, says World Bank President Jim Young Kim in the film.

Conceptualizing this can be difficult, however, since climate change manifests itself differently in different places, said Ghassem Asrar, director of the University of Maryland’s Joint Global Change Research Institute, at the Wilson Center. Through a series of vignettes, coupled with commentary from experts and narration by Matt Damon, Extreme Realities demonstrates how those dynamics play out in a number of different contexts

The film brings viewers to the Turkana region of Kenya, where droughts have prompted cattle raids and exacerbated inter-ethnic tensions over dwindling resources; to Bangladesh, a country the size of New York State with a population one third of the United States’ and the vast majority of its arable land vulnerable to sea-level rise; and the Arctic, where thawing sea ice is opening up new shipping lanes – and competition over oil fields.

Simultaneous, Multifaceted Changes

“If this were one isolated case, it would be bad, but it would be perhaps possible for the international community to deal with,” former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell explains in the film. Instead, “it’s going to come at us simultaneously, in the most multifaceted way one can imagine.”

That’s exactly what happened in 2010, the film explains, when a single extreme weather event – the abnormal splitting of the jet stream over Pakistan and Russia – set off a global cascade.

Over Pakistan, high-altitude winds that shape global weather patterns dipped farther south than usual, picking up significant moisture and “turbocharging” monsoon rains. In what meteorologists deemed “the most destructive extreme weather event caused by climate change,” floods devoured nearly one fifth of the country, leaving 20 million homeless.

Crumbling infrastructure and poor governance hampered government and humanitarian response, opening up space for the Taliban to gain a foothold by establishing camps and delivering food and supplies for suffering communities, freelance journalist Christian Parenti tells the filmmakers.

In Russia, the same shift in the jet stream fueled unprecedented drought and temperature spikes, unleashing heatwaves, wildfires, and toxic smoke that led to over 56,000 deaths. The fires and high temperatures also caused a 40 percent loss in grain harvests, causing the world’s largest grain exporter to panic and place a ban all grain exports.

This sent tremors throughout global commodity markets, hitting the Middle East – home to 9 of the top 10 wheat-importing countries per capita – particularly hard. Seven of those wheat importers experienced violent political protests in 2011, touching off what became known as the Arab Spring.

From Understanding to Action

The film works hard to illustrate these kinds of global, climate-related connections without simplifying them. “It’s not to reduce the Arab spring to a matter of climate change, but you can see how that food price spike was a trigger,” says Parenti.

“You can’t overdo it with climate change,” said Paul O’Brien, vice president for policy and campaigns at Oxfam America, a global humanitarian NGO. “People viscerally have a view of how logical things change. If you don’t make connections in the way [the Weiners] did with creativity and story, it’s a hard thing to get your head around.”

“They’re second and third order effects,” said Sherri Goodman, senior vice president and general counsel at the CNA Corporation, a research organization. “It’s not a simplistic answer. You have to get beyond a linear thinking and understand the complexities involved.” Working in a visual medium allows for those connections to be made more explicitly than can sometimes be done with text, she said.

Goodman praised Extreme Realities for not only “[capturing] the very essence of climate change as it’s affecting our planet” but also “catalyzing the next movement towards real action.”

The filmmakers hope the film’s national security angle, as well its range of non-scientist experts, will draw in viewers who are not primarily concerned with environmental issues or international development.

“This is a very complex, multidimensional problem, both on the natural side of things as well as on the human side of things,” said Asrar. Solving it demands packaging information in a way that people can accept. “You may have the best knowledge, know-how, and the solution. Give it to people; if it contradicts their beliefs, their norms, they will not accept it.”

Can Emerging Leaders Create Change?

It’s especially important to inspire the “young leaders emerging who will be the next generation and [will build] this new field of addressing climate security as a global challenge,” said Goodman.

The film will air on PBS December 15, and the Weiners have already screened it at a number of universities. The Journey to Planet Earth series is used by over 3,000 universities across the United States, reaching nearly 1.5 million young students every year, said Hal Weiner.

Involving young people is key to making these narratives compelling and bringing them to the fore, said Hal Weiner. Last summer, a group of Greenpeace activists boarded a Russian oil rig in the Barents Sea to protest drilling in Arctic waters, a mission that was featured in the film and made headlines. As Cassidy Shard, a social media officer from the Greenpeace Arctic campaign, explained at the screening, the protesters were not seasoned political activists, but young social media officers and freelance journalists who “felt they had to draw a line in the ice.”

Given the approaching negotiations on an international climate treaty and the Sustainable Development Goals, rallying public support over the next year will be critical, said O’Brien. “The movie doesn’t have to have all the answers but it does have to instill sense of urgency about finding those leaders,” he said.

“Above everything else,” said Hal Weiner, “young people have to take control and have to make themselves heard.”

Event Resources:

Video Credit: “Extreme Realities: Trailer” courtesy of Journey to Planet Earth/PBS.

Drafted by Sarah Meyerhoff, edited by Schuyler Null.

Speakers

  • Ghassem Asrar

    Director, Joint Global Change Research Institute
  • Roger-Mark De Souza

    Global Fellow and Advisor
    Former Director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience
  • Sherri Goodman

    Senior Fellow
    Former U.S. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Environmental Security)
  • Paul O'Brien

    Vice President for Policy and Campaigns, Oxfam America
  • Hal Weiner

    Filmmaker; Founder, Screenscope Films
  • Marilyn Weiner

    Filmmaker; Founder, Screenscope Films