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Activists urge Discovery to acknowledge climate change science

April 25, 2012|By Dean Kuipers
  • Penguins swarm ice floes in the Antarctic in a scene from "Frozen Planet."
Penguins swarm ice floes in the Antarctic in a scene from "Frozen Planet." (Jeff Wilson / Discovery…)

Forecast the Facts, the activist group that first confronted GM about its support of climate change doubters the Heartland Institute, now plans to muster a public campaign targeting the Discovery Channel. The purpose: to get Discovery to acknowledge the scientific consensus on man-made climate change in its programming.

The flap follows the recent airing of the final episode of Discovery’s lush exploration of the polar regions, “Frozen Planet.” The last of the seven-hour series, “On Thin Ice,” was devoted specifically to presenting evidence of climate change – including discussion of the challenges facing polar bears, collapsing ice shelves, diminishing habitat, and naturalist David Attenborough (Alec Baldwin is the narrator and host of the series) saying, “The days of the Arctic Ocean being covered by a continuous sheet of ice seem to be past. Whether or not that’s a good or bad thing, of course, depends on your point of view.”

Strangely missing from the narration, however, is any mention of the causes of climate change, even presented as theory. An April 20 story in the New York Times revealed that the producers made a deliberate choice not to present this material, anticipating criticism from the small minority of viewers who do not accept scientific opinion about human causes of global warming.

Series producer Vanessa Berlowitz told the New York Times that including the scientific theories “would have undermined the strength of an objective documentary, and would then have become utilized by people with political agendas.”

Daniel Souweine, campaign director at Forecast the Facts, contends that Discovery played into a political agenda, in fact, by not presenting this information.

“The omission of the content is bad. But in some ways, the decision to omit the content is worse,” said Souweine. “Because it’s saying that they’re going to change how they’re going to report on things to avoid criticism from conspiracy theorists.”

Nancy Daniels, executive vice president of production and development at Discovery Channel, says that this particular program was never meant to carry that kind of analysis. Asked if they had consciously stayed away from addressing climate change science, she said, “The approach of ‘Frozen Planet,’ from the beginning, was to be a nature documentary, a natural history documentary, so in that regard, that is true.”

Daniels denied that the omission of the material was designed to avoid a backlash. However, in the New York Times piece, Discovery’s Berlowitz had said, “We didn’t want people saying ‘Don’t watch this show because it has a slant on climate change.’”

“The biggest reason that we decided to get involved is the message that this sends to the rest of the media,” Souweine said. “Discovery is a really big and important producer of this kind of material. And if they’re saying, ‘We think it’s better to just avoid the topic,’ then every meteorologist, journalist, news anchor, is going to take from that, ‘Ah, maybe the smart thing or the appropriate thing to do here is to not talk about why the planet is changing.’ And that’s really dangerous.”

Several days ago, Souweine said, Forecast the Facts members and supporters began flooding the Discovery Facebook page with messages asking the channel to present the facts about global warming. A check of the page reveals that its comments section is jammed with these messages. As was the case with the group’s campaign to change minds at GM, Souweine hopes that Discovery will be open to dialogue and change on this issue.

Daniels indicated that Discovery will consider the science of climate change like it would any other popular topic, and that the decision not to put this information into “Frozen Planet” does not mean there is a channel-wide ban on the subject. It would just have to go into a different kind of show.

“We do a lot of different shows on Discovery Channel – shows that are science-based or technology-based, or documentary-based, humans and animal life – we have a wide range of things. So in that regard, we always look at what our audience wants to look at or delve deeper into. So, yeah, we would consider it, in the framework that we consider all of the documentaries on our network,” Daniels said.

The show will continue to air on Animal Planet.

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