A Washington journal: Using an Antarctic film to highlight climate change without taking sides

The breathtakingly beautiful images in a new documentary, Antarctica: On the Edge, are meant to appeal to anyone curious about this fragile, frozen continent. But Deborah Raksany, head of development for the Chicago-based company that is distributing the 40-minute film by Jon Bowermaster, thought that some of it might also resonate with scientists and policymakers.

So Raksany reached out to a few professional friends in Washington, D.C., who know the political landscape much better than she does. After months of complicated logistics, Raksany and her colleagues got their wish: a 36-hour climate tripleheader in the nation’s capital. The three events, hosted by the National Science Foundation (NSF), AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider) and a group of Democratic senators, played to capacity crowds earlier this month.

The climate lollapalooza was not your normal science lobbying fly-in, a venerable political strategy in which advocates for a particular cause descend on the nation’s capital for a day to lobby Washington’s movers and shakers. One big difference was that the organizers added artists and entertainers to the usual lineup of scientists, legislators, federal employees, and lobbyists. There also was no “ask”—their support for a particular bill or change in federal policy.

But that doesn’t mean the sponsors, which included the American Geophysical Union, didn’t have a clear agenda. Although none of the events crossed the line into direct advocacy, each one found a way to link up with the film’s not-too-subtle message: Researchers keep adding to the growing body of scientific evidence that human-induced climate change is happening, and the world needs to act on that knowledge.

It’s a message aimed at achieving much more than luring people into science museums and theaters to be wowed by a film. How did Raksany pull it off? And what does her success mean for selling science in a time of political polarization and tight budgets?

An homage to Antarctica

The 60-year-old Bowermaster first went to Antarctica in 1988, for National Geographic, to chronicle a 7-month dash by adventurer Will Steger across the continent using dog sleds. Since then he’s made several more trips as a writer, tour guide, and documentary filmmaker, most recently using sea kayaks and a 23-meter sailboat to document changes along Antarctica’s 1450-kilometer-long western peninsula.

Courtesy of Giant Screen Films and Oceans 8 Productions

The new film, which took him 5 years to make and posed numerous logistical challenges, is an homage to the changes that he’s seen over the years. But Bowermaster, who has spoken at all three events, says it isn’t preachy. “I’ve been a journalist all my life, and I think I know where the line is,” he says.

He readily admits he crossed that line into advocacy in 2012 when he teamed up with his live-in partner, musician Natalie Merchant, to film a rally/concert by those opposed to hydraulic fracture drilling, or fracking, in New York state, where they both live. (Merchant was a last-minute cancellation to the recent festivities, because of what Bowermaster called “exhaustion” from the strain of making a documentary about her reworking of a 20-year-old hit album, Tigerlily.)

“But the Antarctica film is apolitical,” he says. “I put up half of the money,” he says about his joint venture with Raksany’s company, Giant Screen Films, “and we hope that it will be a profitable venture.”

Courtesy of Giant Screen Films and Oceans 8 Productions

Touching the public

Terry Davies doesn’t care whether the movie makes money. But as a senior associate in NSF’s geosciences directorate, she cares a great deal about finding better ways to explain the value of the science that NSF funds. That includes the agency’s $500-million-a-year investment in Antarctic research and logistics. So when Raksany told her she wanted to bring Bowermaster’s new film to Washington, Davies saw it as a chance to expose NSF program managers to new ways of interacting with the public.

Giant Screen Films is no stranger to NSF. The agency had helped to fund two of its earlier films, Dinosaurs Alive and Tornado Alley, and in 2011 the two women arranged to have the film about tornado chasers screened as part of a program for policymakers entitled Hazards on the Hill.

NSF didn’t spend a dime on Antarctica, Davies says. But the film shows the work that NSF-funded scientists are doing in Antarctica and the three research stations the agency operates on the continent. Davies also knew that film can be a powerful medium. So she and Raksany decided to put together a panel, entitled Communicating Science through Art, Film, and Music, as the first event of the climate trilogy.

The panel, held on 15 June, included cartoonist Jim Toomey, who draws the comic strip Sherman’s Lagoon, and musician Luke Cresswell, creator of the Broadway hit Stomp and, more recently, director of three documentaries with environmental themes. Both men urged NSF scientists to find more compelling ways to present research findings to the public than the typical lecture and PowerPoint format.

“If you can engage the crowd, you can bring in a lot more money,” Cresswell said, referring to his days as a street performer in London. The success of Stomp, he noted, demonstrates the power of “speaking through rhythm, which is a universal language.” He says he works hard to integrate the visual and aural aspects of his films (see clip of The Last Reef), creating what he calls “an immersive experience. You want the film to fill your soul, so that you are inspired to change something. That’s the point.”

Toomey, who is trained as a mechanical engineer, says his many years as a cartoonist have taught him that a formula of “90% entertainment and 10% education” works best for weaving such esoteric topics as ocean acidification and the Census of Marine Life into his comic strip. Unfortunately, he says, most scientists reverse those percentages when they present their research to a general audience.

“I think you underestimate the impact of a wonderful story that gets the audience to the point where it can sympathize with the characters and then, boom, you insert this little message,” Toomey told his NSF audience. “It can be 30 seconds in an hour-long movie, or one panel in a cartoon, that says, ‘Look at this disturbed world,’ but that’s enough to make the point if you already have everybody listening to you.”

Toomey also had some advice for scientists who find it difficult to explain their work to a lay audience. “Everybody has a camera in their pocket,” he says, referring to a smartphone. “So take a picture of what you’re doing, and send it to us. We’ll take it from there.”

After the talk, Toomey expanded on his suggestion. “I’m doing a video on the deep ocean, and looking for pictures of deep-sea animals,” he explained. “If scientists would just post, license-free on Wikimedia, what they have already taken, it would make my life much easier.” 

  	Panel discussion with NSF geosciences head Roger Wakimoto (top) and (from left) Rush Holt, Representative Jerry McNerney (D–CA), Luke Cresswell, artist Amy Lamb, Jim Toomey, and Jon Bowermaster.

Panel discussion with NSF geosciences head Roger Wakimoto (top) and (from left) Rush Holt, Representative Jerry McNerney (D–CA), Luke Cresswell, artist Amy Lamb, Jim Toomey, and Jon Bowermaster.

National Science Foundation

Looking for common ground

Bowermaster spoke at all three events, and at NSF he started with an apology. “To quote my friend Luke and many Republican politicians, I am not a scientist, I’m a storyteller. So the only thing I’ll say today about the big C—climate change—is that it’s happening. The climate along the peninsula is changing rapidly. And it’s really easy to see its impacts if you come back year after year.”

Although current attempts by the Republican majority in Congress to reduce funding for climate science at NSF and other federal agencies was on the minds of the audience, none of the speakers mentioned it directly. In fact, Representative Jerry McNerney (D–CA), the only Ph.D. mathematician in Congress, actually defended his colleagues across the aisle and scolded President Barack Obama for the way in which he’s lobbied Congress on the issue.

“If you say somebody is a member of the Flat Earth Society, that’s an insult,” McNerney said, referring to speeches in which Obama uses the phrase to describe opponents of his climate policies. “I think the president has made that mistake. And if you insult somebody, they close the shutters and the conversation is over.”

Maintaining a dialogue is crucial, McNerney said, because he thinks some Republican legislators are inching toward a possible compromise. “A few years ago they were arguing that there’s only a tiny fraction of carbon in the atmosphere and that adding a teensy weensy bit more won’t make a difference,” said McNerney, citing members of the House of Representatives commerce and energy committee on which he serves. “Now they are saying, well, there is something happening and we know the climate is changing. They are not ready to reduce consumption of fossil fuels or invest in carbon sequestration. But I think they’re turning a corner.”

His was a solitary view among the panelists, however. AAAS CEO Rush Holt, who retired last year after serving 16 years as a Democratic congressman from New Jersey, made perhaps the most politically provocative statement of the forum when he answered a question about ways to appeal to legislators who have criticized NSF’s support for an off-Broadway play about climate change. “I would like to suggest that some of the opposition to gripping, moving art sponsored by NSF is not so much because it’s inappropriate but because it’s too effective,” Holt said.

That evening, an event at AAAS offered the most traditional form of Washington political entertainment—a screening of the entire film, followed by presentations from polar researchers Robin Bell of Columbia University and Brendan Kelly, chief scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in northern California. The public was invited, although the audience was heavily weighted toward scientists and science policy watchers.

A lasting impression

The finale the next afternoon combined the depth and breadth of the two previous panels. It was held in an ornate Senate hearing room on Capitol Hill, space available by invitation only from a member of that body. Accordingly, the speakers included two Democratic senators from oceanic states, Bill Nelson of Florida and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. (No Republican legislators participated, although organizers say they invited Senator Lisa Murkowski [R–AK], who in March teamed with Senator Angus King [I–ME] to form a Senate Arctic caucus. King and Senator Harry Reid [D–NV], the former majority leader, attended a private reception after the event.)

The program was entitled Living at the Extremes: Geoscience Research at the Coolest Places on Earth. And whereas the other speakers stuck to that neutral theme, Whitehouse used the setting to attack what he disparagingly calls “parallel science”—information that purports to refute the reams of peer-reviewed scientific evidence showing the negative effects of climate change on a warming planet. Any attempt to hold a dialogue with its purveyors, he warned the generally supportive audience, is a waste of time.

“The last thing they are interested in is more education,” he told ScienceInsider after his speech. “They have zero interest in the truth. But they are very good at communicating their position, better than most scientists, because they are trained to do it.”

NSF’s Davies, a former staffer in the agency’s government affairs shop, knows better than to comment publicly on such a political diatribe. But she readily admits getting a warm feeling from an exchange between senators Nelson and Toomey shortly after Toomey told the audience about witnessing a massive “Grand Canyon” on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast during a dive last year in the research vessel Alvin.

“Did you see Nelson go over to Jim after his speech?” Davies asked this reporter a few days after the event. (Toomey says Nelson asked him how far off the coast the canyon was located; the answer, Toomey says, is roughly 240 kilometers.) “He really had the senator’s attention. That image is something Nelson will carry around with him because it’s new information.”

“Toomey told the story [of his 8-hour dive] in such a way that it captivated the audience,” Davies continued. “It’s the ‘wow’ factor. And that was the whole point.”

Raksany agrees that the goal of the climate lollapalooza was to get people hooked on Antarctica and the wonders of exploration. What happens next, she says, is out of her control.

 “It’s a destination film more than a science film,” she explains. “It’s pretty landscapes and adventure. It’s a place that most people will never get to experience except through giant screen and 3D. The science comes in when you start thinking about what’s happening in Antarctica, and why you should care.”

Graphic design by Juan David Romero; (Video credit: The Last Reef 3D, Courtesy of Giant Screen Films and Yes/No Productions)

*Correction, 1 July, 2:12 p.m.: Deborah Raksany is vice president for development and partnerships at Giant Screen Films. Her position was described incorrectly in an earlier version of the story.