Apr 16 2014
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A Behind the Scenes Look at a Documentary Series on Climate Change

Sabrina McCormick, PhD, is a sociologist, filmmaker, and an associate professor of environmental and occupational health for the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. She is an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars program.

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The first episode of Years of Living Dangerously, a new documentary series exploring the human impact of climate change, aired last Sunday on Showtime. I worked on the series as associate producer and producer, but I am also a scientist who has been studying the impact of climate change on human health for almost a decade. In all that time, I’d developed a good grasp of what climate change looks like from a scientific point of view. But working on the series made me learn a lot more about what climate change looks like, not just here in the United States but worldwide.

This documentary television series consists of nine episodes featuring star correspondents as they meet experts and visit ordinary people who have lived through extreme weather events triggered by climate change. James Cameron, Jerry Weintraub, and Arnold Schwarzenegger served as executive producers of the series, along with former 60 Minutes producers Joel Bach and David Gelber. I worked with Matt Damon on an upcoming segment about heat waves and with Michael C. Hall on another story focusing on Bangladesh, a nation already vulnerable to extreme weather.

The first episode of the Years series is now available free to the public here. In that first episode, you will learn some of the basics of climate change and its impact. But in upcoming episodes, the series goes beyond climate change 101 and tackles what will happen next from rising sea levels to deadly heat waves.

Here are just a few of the snapshots I encountered while working on the series:

·         While shooting in Bangladesh, I took my first flight in a seaplane, which I thought would be scary because of the bumps, but turned out to be frightening for another reason entirely. As a professor at Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, I knew that Bangladesh has low-lying elevation and other features making it vulnerable to climate change. But as we soared over the land, I saw for the first time the frightening reality of what rising sea levels really mean for this nation. From far above, the silvery nature of the country can be seen—sunlight reflects off every watery surface. Sandwiched between rivers, lakes and streams are people. Tens of millions of them. They will be crowded out when sea levels rise dramatically. Where will they go? I wondered, and how will they survive?

·         Standing in the Los Angeles morgue while producing the story about heat waves, I watched the crypt door open and close. I had not expected to see so many dead bodies when I planned a story about heat waves, but the truth is it kills more people than all other disasters combined. Many cities across the country already have too many bodies to deal with. If, or when, a major heat wave strikes, there will likely be too many bodies to fit in the crypt, just like the Chicago heat wave in 1995. That year, hospital emergency rooms were inundated with people affected by the extreme heat. Others suffered at home without air conditioning and many died in record numbers. Official counts vary but the Chicago heat wave alone killed more than 700 across the city.

These are just a few of the touch points of climate change that will become increasingly common as times goes on. The Years series is chock full of them.

McCormick works on mitigating climate change through renewable technologies and addressing climate impacts like heat waves, vector-borne diseases, and climate-related disasters.

Tags: Built Environment and Health, Health & Society Scholars, Leadership Development, Tobacco Control, Voices from the Field