Television Review

Heating up climate change debate

A ''Frontline'' documentary is an in-depth examination of the impediments to finding solutions for climate change. A ''Frontline'' documentary is an in-depth examination of the impediments to finding solutions for climate change. (CHARLES O'REAR/CORBIS)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / October 21, 2008
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When it comes to climate change, the official word on the campaign trail is optimism. Both Barack Obama and John McCain talk forcefully about their goals of reducing dependence on foreign oil, investigating foreign energy sources, using drilling - a little or a lot, baby - as a partial cure. They're echoing the popular message of Al Gore, who chose to wrap his warning call in a thin layer of good cheer. As long as we pitch in together, he seemed to suggest, we'll save this planet yet.

"Heat," the "Frontline" documentary that premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 2, functions as a big wet blanket, a sad reminder that, in this country and many others, the sort of change the planet needs has never come easily. This is an in-depth look at the impediments to climate change solutions, with a focus on the political system that has, so far, resisted anything more than tiny, piecemeal efforts.

The story is told by "Frontline" correspondent Martin Smith, who begins with some sobering facts and apocalyptic images. Glaciers are melting. Rivers are drying up. Industrial growth in the developing world isn't helping matters. (The process of making cement, he reports, is the third-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. These days, China and India are making a lot of cement.)

After a global prelude, Smith turns his attention to the United States, and the chief bogeyman becomes the political process itself. We see logic-twisting lobbyists, stonewalling politicians, and a string of silver-bullet solutions that have turned out, over the years, to yield little fruit. A Clinton-era deal to encourage the Big Three automakers to develop an 80-miles-per-gallon family car collapsed in the face of soaring sales for trucks and SUVs. California's efforts to set high fuel-efficiency standards were beaten back by the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, efforts to increase ethanol use - which have made some farmers happy in Midwestern states - is rejected by many scientists as fruitless. The widely touted promise of clean coal might well prove too costly to be feasible. Nuclear reactors, which power most of France, strike fear in the hearts of Americans and don't seem politically feasible. Oil companies spend a tiny fraction of their profits on clean-energy alternatives.

And while politicians, in general, have resisted major change, "Frontline" points out that consumer demand is an impediment, as well. Some 52 percent of the electricity consumed in America comes from coal, and as one coal-fired power-plant manager notes, when people "flip the switch, they want the lights to come on."

So it goes, as a string of sober commentators issues warnings like, "We don't have a lot of time to reverse course." It's easy to see why fear mixed with hope is an easier message to swallow, the sort of rhetoric a striving politician needs. But "Frontline" makes the case that, when it comes to energy policy, our next president will have to make the sort of wholesale change the campaigns keep talking about. And while change makes for a nice political message, it clearly won't be easy. What's good for the Earth is bound to make some people - or some entire industries - extremely unhappy in the short term.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at For more on TV, go to

Frontline: Heat

On: Channel 2

Time: Tonight, 9-11

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